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November 6th, 2021:

Justice Department sues Texas over the voter suppression law

Specifically, they are challenging a couple of specific provisions of the law.

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday sued Texas over its new voting law, expanding its effort to challenge Republican-backed measures passed in state legislatures.

The lawsuit, brought by the DOJ’s civil rights division in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, challenges provisions in the Texas law, known as SB 1, that place new procedural requirements on voting by mail and restrict the assistance voters with disabilities or those who struggle to read and write are able to receive in filling out a ballot.

Those provisions “deny eligible voters meaningful assistance in the voting booth and require rejection of mail ballot materials for immaterial errors or omissions,” the department’s complaint alleges.

The lawsuit is the second one the DOJ’s civil rights division has brought this year challenging a state law placing new restrictions on voting. The department sued Georgia in June over a law the federal government alleged disproportionately harmed voters of color.

[…]

Unlike the case against Georgia, the DOJ’s suit against Texas was not brought under the section of the Voting Rights Act that focuses on voter discrimination based on race.

Rather, the complaint filed Thursday focuses on a section of the law requiring voter assistance for those who need it based on “blindness, disability or inability to read or write.” The suit was also filed under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning people from being denied the right to vote based on clerical errors or omissions that are “not material” in determining if someone is qualified to vote.

The complaint does mention the history of voting discrimination in Texas and the growth of minority populations in the state in recent years, but the claims based on race or ethnicity all have to do with the restrictions the law places on help made available to voters who speak languages other than English.

The Texas law confines the role of voting “assistors” to reading the ballot or helping to mark the ballot, barring individuals who provide help from “answering a voter’s questions, explaining the voting process, paraphrasing complex language, and providing other forms of voting assistance that some qualified voters require to cast an informed and effective vote,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also takes aim at measures that require voters to provide an identification number, such as a driver’s license or election identification certificate, in requesting a mail-in ballot.

“Conditioning the right to cast a mail ballot on a voter’s ability to recall and recite the identification number provided on an application for voter registration months or years before will curtail fundamental voting rights without advancing any legitimate state interest,” the lawsuit alleges.

It’s been a little while since the initial flurry of lawsuits against SB1, long enough that I had forgotten that there were already six lawsuits over this thing: Two lawsuits filed before the bill was signed, by Harris County and a coalition of voters, one filed in Austin and one in San Antonio; a trio of lawsuits filed right after it was signed, one each in federal court by Democracy Docket and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and one in state court by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and one a month later, which is to now say a month ago, by Mi Familia Vota. As I said at the time, it was not clear to me why the Lawyers’ Committee one was filed in state court. Those lawsuits were all presented as being broader claims about racial discrimination, much like that DOJ lawsuit against Georgia, while this one is more focused on a couple of specific items in the law. I don’t know if that was a strategic choice or just a recognition that the broader issues were already being addressed.

The Trib adds a few more details.

The state has long allowed voters who need assistance casting ballots to have someone help them, as long as those assisting don’t try to influence the actual votes. SB 1 places new constraints on what those assistants may do. They cannot answer questions, clarify translations, explain the voting process or paraphrase complex language, the federal lawsuit says.

The law also creates potential criminal penalties for people who assist voters. A person assisting a voter is required to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to that voter. They must also recite an expanded oath — now under the penalty of perjury — that states they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into picking them for assistance.

The oath no longer allows explicitly answering the voter’s questions. Instead, an assistant must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

The limits on assistance will hit particularly hard voters with limited English proficiency and those with disabilities, the lawsuit contends.

“There is a history of discrimination against voters with disabilities in Texas,” the lawsuit claims, noting estimates that 28% of Texans have conditions impairing their mobility, cognition or vision.

The suit also takes aim at SB 1’s new rules for mail-in voting. Texas traditionally has placed more limits on mail-in voting than other states. The legitimacy of mail-in ballots was largely determined by comparing signatures on applications and ballots.

SB 1 created new ID requirements. Voters who want to be mailed a ballot must provide their driver’s license number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number when they send in an application for one.

They then must provide the same numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot. Critics point out that many voters — particularly elderly applicants — may have their votes thrown out simply because they didn’t remember which ID number they used the first time, or have lost their ID card.

The law, set to take effect in time for the 2022 primary elections, already faced legal challenges generally argue it will disproportionately impact voters of colors and voters with disabilities. Those challenges, along with Thursday’s lawsuit, could delay its implementation.

Here’s where I shrug and say that I have no idea what the courts will make of this. I will also remind everyone that the Texas voter ID law specifically excluded mail voters from needing to provide ID because at the time more Republicans voted by mail, and they had no interest in inconveniencing their own voters. Now that Democrats also use mail ballots, that consideration no longer applies. The Chron, Reform Austin, and Daily Kos have more.

UT/Trib: Abbott 46, Beto 37

Data point #2, arriving on schedule.

Gov. Greg Abbott has a comfortable lead over potential Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, according to a new poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune.

The survey of registered voters found Abbott with a 9-percentage-point advantage over O’Rourke, 46% to 37%. Seven percent of respondents picked someone else in the hypothetical matchup, and 10% said they have not thought about it enough to have an opinion.

O’Rourke is increasingly expected to challenge the Republican governor for a third term next year, though he has not made an announcement yet.

Both men have vulnerabilities, according to the survey. Abbott’s approval rating has slightly improved since the last poll in August, but it remains underwater, with 43% of voters approving of the job he is doing and 48% disapproving.

O’Rourke, meanwhile, has a well-defined — and negative — image with voters. Only 35% of respondents said they have a favorable opinion of him, while 50% registered an unfavorable opinion. Only 7% of voters said they did not know him or had no opinion of him.

While O’Rourke is widely liked by Democrats and widely disliked by Republicans, his low favorability with independents is hurting his overall showing: Only 22% of them have a positive view of him, while 48% have a negative view.

Abbott’s numbers with independents are nothing to brag about, either. Twenty-seven percent of them approve of his job performance, while 57% disapprove.

O’Rourke’s initial 9-point deficit “is as good a starting point as Democrats are gonna get,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

One other potential gubernatorial candidate who has captured the attention of the political world is actor Matthew McConaughey. He has teased a possible run for months, without saying which primary he would run in — or whether he would run as an independent.

The poll discovered that the movie star is not universally beloved by Texans. Close to a third of voters — 29% — have neither a favorable nor unfavorable opinion of McConaughey. Thirty-five percent registered a favorable opinion of him, and 24% said they had an unfavorable impression.

Any Democratic candidate will have to contend with a president from their party, Joe Biden, who is deeply unpopular in Texas. In the poll, voters gave him a net approval rating of negative 20 points, with 35% approving of his job performance and 55% disapproving. That is wider than the 11-point deficit that the survey found between the two ratings for Biden in August.

See here for the previous poll result we got, from the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. There’s another story about various issue questions, which largely boils down to “Democrats and Republicans disagree on things, and independents sometimes go one way and sometimes go the other”. Neither seems to have a link to their data, so who knows how it all breaks down. I will note that given the existence of that other poll in which Abbott led Beto by one, down nine is not really “as good a starting point as Democrats are gonna get”, but whatever.

This poll also included questions about the primaries, which again suggest that Abbott will win without a runoff, Paxton may win without a runoff, and no one can say what might happen in the contested Dem primaries. Biden’s approval numbers are lousy – it would be very nice if they bounced back a bit – Abbott’s remain bad but are better than they were in September – he may improve just because the Lege isn’t in session, that used to be the pattern for Rick Perry as well – and no one else is above water, consistent with other results. And that’s about all there is to say about this poll.

An estimate of the Census undercount

It could have been worse.

According to new analysis of the 2020 Census, Texas had the highest undercount of any US state in raw numbers. It’s estimated some 377,000 in the state weren’t included in the count.

Nationally, the 2020 census missed an estimated 1.6 million people, but given hurdles posed by the pandemic and natural disasters, the undercount was smaller than expected, according to the data reviewed by a think tank that did computer simulations of the nation’s head count.

The analysis, done by the Urban Institute and released Tuesday, found that people of color, renters, noncitizens, children and people living in Texas — the state that saw the nation’s largest growth — were most likely to be missed, though by smaller margins than some had projected. Still, those shortfalls could affect the drawing of political districts and distribution of federal spending.

The analysis estimates there was a 0.5% undercount of the nation’s population during the 2020 census. If that modeled estimate holds true, it would be greater than the 0.01% undercount in the 2010 census but in the same range as the 0.49% undercount in the 2000 census.

Texas and Mississippi were undercounted by 1.28% and 1.3%, respectively, in the simulated count. Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin also registered overcounts in the simulation, an unsurprising conclusion since they had among the highest self-response rates in the nation during the actual count.

About a fifth of the U.S. residents not counted in the Urban Institute’s simulations lived in Texas, and that could have real-life consequences. According to the Urban Institute analysis, Texas stands to miss out on $247 million in 2021 federal Medicaid reimbursements for being undercounted.

[…]

“The fact that the undercount wasn’t larger is surprising and certainly a good news story,” said Diana Elliott, principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “This undercount suggests the 2020 census may not be as close in accuracy as 2010, but it may not be as dire as some had feared.”

The official undercount or overcount of the census won’t be known until next year when the Census Bureau releases a report card on its accuracy. The bureau’s post-enumeration survey measures the accuracy of the census by independently surveying a sample of the population and estimating how many people and housing units were missed or counted erroneously

Indeed, it could have been a lot worse. The Republicans did everything they could to make it as hard as possible to get an accurate count, so kudos to the Census Department for overcoming as well as they did. For more on the Urban Institute’s research and results, see here for an overview, here for a state-by-state guide, and here for the specifics about Texas. Daily Kos has more.

Get ready to compost

I hope this expands in the near future.

The city launched a composting pilot program Wednesday, opening three sites where residents can drop off compost-friendly waste that otherwise would wind up in a landfill.

The hope is the program will help educate Houstonians on how to divert some of their trash away from the city’s rapidly filling landfills, which also can cut down on methane emissions.

“Very few people in Houston compost. This is a way to educate people about the benefits of it,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who led the effort to start a pilot program. “I know we’re not going to revolutionize the whole city by composting today, but it’s planting a seed, it’s educating people.”

Residents will be able to drop off their compost materials at three sites over the next six weeks: The Kashmere Multi-Service Center, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays; the Historic Heights Fire Station, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays; and the Houston Botanic Garden, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays.

The city and its partners, Zero Waste Houston and Moonshot Compost, will take the materials to Nature’s Way, an organization that will turn the compost into soil over the course of 15 to 18 months.

[…]

Food materials sitting in landfills mark the third-largest source of human methane emissions in the United States, accounting for 14.1 percent of the emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency reported that methane emissions from municipal landfills in 2019 were equivalent to more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

The region’s landfills also are quickly filling. A master plan for the Solid Waste department reported there is only about 30 to 40 years of capacity remaining at the city’s 12 landfills. Seven of them would be forced to close by 2040 unless they undergo major expansions. All private construction and demolition landfills are expected to reach capacity in that time, as well. The master plan called for increasing diversion programs, such as composting, to ease the burden on those sites.

I hope we can all agree that creating more landfill space is not the highest and best use of any existing property. Diverting some amount of waste that has other good uses away from the landfill is a great way to kick that can a good distance down the road. Recycling is a big part of that, composting is just taking it to the next level. Some places already have curbside compost pickup, and our goal should be to get there as well.

Compost-friendly materials include food scraps, such as coffee grounds and tea bags; meat and bones; moldy or freezer-burned food; fruits and vegetable; dairy; and seafood and shells. Alcorn reminded residents to remove paper stickers and other materials from the items before dropping them at the collection sites.

Acceptable materials also include compostable utensils, bags and cups; newspapers, fur, hair and nail clippings; flowers; paper napkins and towels; vegetarian pet bedding; and wood ash.

We do some backyard composting – my wife loves to garden, so she makes heavy use of what we compost – but not everything listed here goes into our bin. I need to make a plan to separate out some of that material and bring it to the Heights Fire Station next Wednesday.