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November 28th, 2020:

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

No Walmart liquor stores

Some non-election litigation news of interest.

Texans still won’t be able to purchase liquor at Walmart, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by the retail giant that would have allowed the booze to be sold at stores in the state.

Texas is the only state in the nation that does not allow publicly traded companies, like Walmart Inc., to obtain liquor permits — but they are allowed to sell beer and wine.

Walmart claims the law is discriminatory and has argued that 98% of liquor stores in the state are owned by Texans.

Turned away by the nation’s highest court, Walmart will now have to prove intentional discrimination before a federal trial court.

Lawyers for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said the law is in place to make liquor less readily available and curb its consumption.

“The law precludes large corporations from using their economies of scale to lower liquor prices and increase the density of liquor outlets in the State. This approach has served Texas well — it has consistently ranked among the States with the lowest per capita liquor consumption,” lawyers for the commission stated.

Not sure I buy the cause-and-effect logic there, but whatever. Walmart, which at the time still had a hyphen in its name, originally sued in 2015 in federal court in Travis County. They got a favorable ruling in 2018, which was remanded back to the district court by the Fifth Circuit (opinion here). Walmart had appealed this ruling to SCOTUS, so the denial means they have to go back to the district court and try again under the tougher guidelines set out by the Fifth Circuit. We’ll see if they proceed, or if they decide it might be faster and cheaper to try to elect a bunch of legislators who will pass a bill to do what they want. I’m no fan of Walmart, but I really don’t see the point of this state regulation. Everything we do with alcohol in this state is weird and anachronistic.

“COVID-killing machines”

I like the sound of that.

The George R. Brown Convention Center was built to hold Houston’s biggest crowds, but during the pandemic its halls have grown quieter. In reviving the center, Houston First squared off with a problem facing all local venues — showing the public they’re safe.

To address the problem, the local government corporation created to operate the city’s convention and performing arts facilities launched a public education campaign in August and spent about $30,000 on three mobile air filtration units for the convention center’s general assembly space, which is often used by businesses for presentations. The units, installed in September, add a layer of security for guests, said Michael Heckman, the group’s acting president and chief executive.

“Any level of added confidence that we can give to the public during this time is incredibly important,” Heckman said. “And I think once people understand the level of sophistication of this technology they’d be highly impressed, as we were.”

The filters are the product of Houston’s Integrated Viral Protection, an enterprise formed by engineer and real estate developer Monzer Hourani based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

[…]

Other pandemic-era inventions, such as UV light devices, require people to leave the room and, while they kill viruses on surfaces, they are not as effective at treating the air, Hourani said. Most HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filters, remove particles through holes still big enough to let coronavirus through, he said.

Despite the creation, Hourani said people gathering still need to wear masks. From a clinical perspective, air filtration devices like IVP’s can be used as an added layer of protection in addition to other preventative measures, said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease for Baylor College of Medicine.

“At this point it’s unclear how much benefit it provides,” she said, “and it shouldn’t take the place of mask-wearing and social distancing. And frequent disinfecting.”

Most of what’s in between is technical details about the filters and the company, which you can peruse as you see fit. I think the idea of “making it safer for people to congregate indoors, as long as they wear masks” is a good one, and if it works would allow for a greater resumption of normal activities, without increasing the risk. It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who can’t or won’t do the risk-mitigating things we need them to do – and let’s be clear, some of these folks are service and retail workers who have no choice, while some others very much could be making different decisions – and as long as that is the case, the next best thing we can do is improve the odds overall. I hope this works as intended.