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July 9th, 2021:

Disabled voters worry about getting screwed by SB7

It won’t be called SB7 in the special session on voter suppression, but you know what I mean.

Texas Republicans have pursued broad efforts this year to ratchet up voting restrictions in the aftermath of a high-turnout election that saw high-profile fights over the state’s voting rules, including the tight eligibility requirements for absentee voting. The 2020 election marked a shift from what was traditionally a tool utilized by the GOP to one that was instead taken up by more Democratic voters. But as the GOP has worked to clamp down on what remains a limited voting option, voters with disabilities — who are among the few groups of Texans eligible to vote by mail — have been caught in the middle of the fight.

Republicans have cast their proposals as “election integrity” measures to protect the voting process from fraud, even though there is no evidence it occurs on a widespread basis. But throughout the spring legislative session, nearly every version of the GOP’s priority voting legislation raised alarms for disability rights advocates who warned lawmakers they would likely run afoul of federal protections for disabled voters.

Texas offers two avenues to voting most helpful for people with disabilities. If they’re unable to vote in person without needing assistance or injuring their health, they can request a mail-in ballot. If they want to vote in person but need assistance, they can ask someone to accompany them to a polling place to help them through the voting process.

Under Republican proposals that are expected to be reconsidered this month, both of those paths might be further constricted.

In the Senate, Republicans wanted to require proof of a condition or illness, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor’s note, before disabled voters can receive mail-in ballots for every election in a calendar year. Under current law, voters need only attest that they have a disability that qualifies them for a mail-in ballot.

That proposed change was eventually pulled down, but Republican senators moved forward with a bill that would have increased the likelihood that people with disabilities would be cast as suspect voters if they used other legal accommodations, like having assistance at the polling place.

The GOP bill would have allowed partisan poll watchers to video record voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll watchers believed the help was unlawful — a change that disability rights advocates argued would wrongly target people with disabilities. For voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities, for example, voting help may require prompting or questioning that could be misconstrued as coercion by a person unfamiliar with that sort of assistance.

Although voters can select anyone to help them as long as they’re not an employer or union leader, House Republicans attempted to set up new rules for those helping voters, including a requirement to disclose and document the reason the voter needed assistance, even if for medical reasons.

At multiple points during the session, Republicans said they tweaked some of those proposals in response to concerns from disability rights advocates. But when the final version of the legislation emerged from backroom negotiations just before the end of the regular session, it included unwelcome changes to redefine what constitutes a disability under state election law, as well as new identification requirements for voting by mail that advocates said lacked clarity.

“Our voices weren’t being heard at the very end when it was the most important,” said Chase Bearden, the deputy executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

The story opens with an account of one woman who felt the need to cast her mail ballot in person, and the ordeal she endured to do so. It’s worth reading, and reflecting on how much easier it is for some people to vote than it is for others. What happens with the provisions that the disability rights community objected to and had some success stopping in the regular session now that we’re in overtime is unknown. I think the Republicans may at least listen and try to make some accommodations, but if it comes down to them or their base, it’s no contest. At that point it will be a matter of whether litigation over equal access for folks with disabilities will have any better luck in the courts than litigation over claims of racial discrimination. I can’t say I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.

Testify, George P!

I’m ready for this.

A congressional panel is set to review the Texas General Land Office’s denial of federal flood mitigation funding to Houston and Harris County, the latest in an ongoing spat over more than $1 billion in aid approved by Congress and doled out by the state.

The Democrat-led House Financial Services Committee wants Land Commissioner George P. Bush to testify about the decision during a hearing next week, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee. It’s unclear yet if Bush will appear at the July 15 hearing.

[…]

Green said he wants Bush to explain the initial denial, as well as why it has taken so long to get the federal funding out. The funding is part of a relief package that Congress approved in 2018 after Hurricane Harvey.

“This is pretty serious, when you look at the time that has lapsed … then not to have the money spent on people who are still suffering and waiting to have the relief and the money is in the hands of GLO,” Green said. “I think GLO should explain.”

These are all good questions, and we deserve to hear answers to them. We should also recognize that in the tradition of the Trump administration, there’s a decent chance that Bush just blows this off. If that happens, then Congress needs to do the stand-up thing and subpoena him, and hold him in contempt if he continues to defy them. Do not wimp out on this. Either there’s accountability or there isn’t, and enforcement is a key part of that. If he’s not there willingly, make him be there, or else.

Our Delta future

Don’t expect anything to change, except for the number of people getting sick and dying.

The new and highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus may have sparked the recent outbreak of 125-plus cases of COVID-19 linked to a Houston-area youth church camp, and a Texas virologist says the breakout should be a wake-up call for communities.

“Clearly, COVID is not over,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University.

“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman said. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”

The Galveston County church camp took place in June with more than 450 adults and youth in attendance, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 125 COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which three thus far have been confirmed to be the Delta variant.

The Delta variant is poised to become the leading strain in the United States in coming months according to Texas health experts, whose top concern is the risk it represents for those who are unvaccinated.

That strain, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, now accounts for about a quarter of virus infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First discovered in India, it triggered a devastating outbreak there in April and May and has since spread to 85 other countries, attacking areas where vaccination rates are the lowest.

While dozens of strains have spawned from the original COVID-19 virus, the Delta variant is the most transmissible so far, said Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. It is also leading to higher rates of hospitalization for those infected, according to research.

[…]

DSHS said it recommends people protect themselves from the variant the same way they do for other strains of the virus.

“The best protection from all strains of COVID is getting fully vaccinated,” the statement said. “People who are not vaccinated should continue to follow COVID precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Though the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks in public spaces, Neuman is pleading for everyone to continue wearing them, especially with the Delta variant spreading in Texas.

“The only confirmed cases that we know are cases that spread through the air,” he said, and those are “from somebody’s mouth to somebody else’s mouth.” Because of that, “blocking one or both of those mouths is really the ultimate way to stop the virus from spreading.”

Some more data, if you need it.

More than 40 percent of new COVID-19 hospitalizations at Houston Methodist are the Delta variant, researchers said Wednesday, a number expected to rise as travel returns but vaccination rates stagnate nationwide.

“The number of Delta variant COVID-19 cases at Houston Methodist has nearly doubled over the last week and is sixfold higher than in May,” said Houston Methodist spokesperson Lisa Merkl. Delta variant cases made up just 20 percent of hospitalizations at the hospital system the week prior.

COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to reducing infection rates, epidemiologists said, especially as the more contagious strain of the virus spreads worldwide. Positive case and hospitalization rates are also trending upward at Houston Methodist.

Experts expect that Delta, which is thought to be 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, will soon become the dominant coronavirus variant in the U.S. Houston Methodist’s models estimate the Delta variant will make up 92 percent of all new infections within the coming weeks.

Not sure what more you need to know. The people who are vaccine hesitant, or who have obstacles in their way for getting vaccinated, will for the most part eventually get vaccinated. It will take too much time and I doubt there’s anything we can do now that we haven’t already tried to speed it up, but this group will steadily shrink. The anti-vaxxers are not going to get vaccinated, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. They’re also not going to wear face masks – they were the most whiny and resistant about it when that was the only mitigation available for when you had to be among other people. There’s also basically no chance Texas will impose any face mask requirements again, and local governments are prohibited from doing so. I wouldn’t even expect Greg Abbott to make a timid suggestion that maybe some people should think about wearing masks again.

If the Delta variant really takes off in Texas and we start looking like Missouri, I have no idea what happens. I have a hard time imagining Abbott even asking for federal help, though maybe the locals can do that. In many ways, we are where we were before, which is to say we’re on our own as far as Texas government is concerned. At least this time, some of us have more protection than others.

Here are your new SB7s

We start with the House.

The Texas House is starting off on a new foot on the contentious elections proposal that blew up the regular legislative session.

As a special session reviving the Republican-priority bill got underway Thursday, there were ample signs that the lower chamber was taking a fresh approach to the legislation, at least procedurally. The bill has a new author who is moving early to get colleagues’ input, and it is going through a new committee that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, says he created to bring more diverse perspectives to the issue.

[…]

The House’s revised approach to the voting legislation is in contrast to the Senate. In that chamber, Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, is again carrying the omnibus election proposal, which for a second time will be considered before the upper chamber’s State Affairs Committee, which Hughes chairs. The committee is set to consider the legislation Saturday.

One of the starkest changes to the elections bill in the House for the special session was its author. Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, carried the bill in the regular session, but Phelan tapped Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, to take the lead on it during the special session. Murr currently chairs the House Corrections Committee.

On Wednesday, Murr sent a letter to House colleagues announcing he had filed House Bill 3 and was soliciting their feedback.

“Because this subject is important to all Members and their constituents, and given the compressed time frame of the special session, I welcome any questions, discussions or comments you may have,” Murr wrote, inviting members to call him or come by his office.

[…]

Phelan did not put Cain on the new panel, nor did he tap Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Elections Committee. But he did tap Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, a member of the Elections Committee who had helped Cain with the elections bill during the regular session.

On Thursday, the main elections bill for the special session — HB 3 — as well as other voting-related proposals were referred to the select committee instead of the Elections Committee. The election bill was set for a hearing set to start 8 a.m. Saturday.

During Democrats’ news conference Thursday, Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said that the legislation, despite any changes that may be made to it, “is inherently flawed.”

“The bottom line on HB 3 is, just like SB 7, it’s based on a lie,” Turner told reporters. “It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election.”

As noted, the Senate will also have a hearing on Saturday. Tomorrow will be a busy day.

This story covers the differences between the House and Senate bills, and how the differ from what had been done in the regular session. It’s nice that some of the more egregious things like the restriction on Sunday early voting hours and the lessening of legal standards to challenge an election were removed, but there are still some truly bad things in these bills, and they’re not getting enough attention. For example:

SB 1 strays from the House’s legislation by setting up monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill would require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens when they obtained or renewed their driver’s license or ID card.

That sort of review landed the state in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to review notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

State election officials ultimately ended that effort as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges and agreed to rework their methodology to only flag voters who provided DPS with documentation showing they were not citizens after they were registered to vote. But they do not appear to have ever taken up the effort after that debacle.

While the Senate bill does not reference that agreement, it indicates that the secretary of state’s office would be responsible for setting up rules to implement the review.

I guarantee you, the implementation of this will be a disaster. This provision is heavy-handed, the mandated frequency will make it error prone, and the end result will be many people thrown off the rolls incorrectly. I don’t care how the Secretary of State sets up the rules, there is no reason to trust this process.

Both bills include language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. Both chambers also want to make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.

What this will lead to is some Republican knucklehead uploading a video of something he will claim is “proof” of “voter fraud”, when it will be nothing of the sort. But because he will have been there, at the scene, acting in an “official” capacity, people will believe him. Nothing good can come of this. We need more protection from partisan poll watchers, not protections for them.

Anyway. Watch the hearing if you can, register to leave written feedback if you can, and then work like hell to boot the people pushing this crap out of office in 2022. It’s all we can do.