Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

December 21st, 2021:

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Back to threat level orange

Thanks, omicron.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant” Monday, as the number of infections rise sharply, sparked by the spread of the omicron variant.

“Level 2: Orange,” is the second-highest threat level in the county. While it falls short of suggesting that residents stay home under all circumstances, Threat Level 2 recommends that people minimize all uneccessary contacts in order to stem the flow of the virus.

“Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has arrived in Harris County in full force,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “These trends are understandably frustrating — especially as we close out the year with friends and family. But we can still blunt the force of this latest wave if we take action.”

New cases in the area have nearly tripled in the last week, with the Texas Medical Center reporting about 2,094 cases per day compared to about 721 the week before.

The COVID-19 testing positivity rate has jumped from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent in that span, and hospitalizations at the medical center have grown from about 68 people per day to about 110.

As noted, it was less than one month ago that the threat level had been lowered to yellow. Those were the days, huh? And now we’re back to this.

Jayne Johnston broke the bad news on Saturday to her 6-year-old daughter: Theater Under the Stars’ production of “The Little Mermaid” was canceled.

“She was crushed because she was so excited,” Johnston says. “I made this big deal about her getting vaccinated. I’d told her, ‘You’ll get to go inside places again, but you’ll still have to wear a mask.’”

The mother-daughter duo had planned to see the 2 p.m. performance at the Hobby Center. At the time, another show was also scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but it was canceled, too.

“While we had hoped to resume performances on Sunday, we have confirmed a positive COVID case among our performing company,” said TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges in a statement. “Our paramount concerns are for the health and safety of our artists and audiences. It does, regrettably, put us in the position of making hard decisions and cancelling performances this weekend. Performances will resume on Tuesday, December 21.”

The spread of the omicron COVID variant and the recent spike in cases is beginning to affect live theater, sports and other public gatherings in Houston.

[…]

Similar to TUTS, Alley Theatre’s guest services team alerted patrons on Saturday a person working on ‘A Christmas Carol’ tested positive for coronavirus. Ticket-holders can requests seats to a future show date through Dec. 29, or any future Alley production. Refunds are available, too.

“It’s disappointing because we’ve done so well this whole run of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” says Dean R. Gladden, Alley Theatre Managing Director. “We’ve done a lot to prepare, but the biggest thing you can’t prepare for is when it happens to you — you just have to deal with it.”

Gladden explains that his actors are already kept separate in respective bubbles. When someone tests positive for COVID, everyone — including production — has to provide negative results. That didn’t happen in time for Sunday’s performance. “A Christmas Carol” is expected to return to the stage on Tuesday.

“Patrons have been so understanding to know that it’s nobody’s fault. This is a very active variant,” he says. “We’re seeing this across the country. Performing arts are taking a hit, sports are taking a hit.”.

On Sunday, Rice University postponed a men’s basketball home game against University of St. Thomas due to COVID-related issues within the Owl’s program according to a statement. The women’s basketball team canceled Sunday’s game at Texas A&M University due to COVID issues, as well.

“With contract tracing, we didn’t have enough players to play the games. Basketball is a smaller team,” says Chuck Pool, Sports Information Director at Rice. There’s a slim chance both games could be rescheduled if the dates work out. “I can’t really speculate. These would’ve been our last games before Christmas.”

Not just colleges, and of course not just live theater:

Yesterday, a little after noon, the Dandelion Cafe posted a notice to its Facebook page. It echoed the sign newly posted on the door of this Bellaire breakfast staple: “Due to a rise in COVID cases, including several among our staff, we feel it is in the best interest of our staff, customers and everyone’s families to close until everyone can work and be in a safe and healthy environment.”

This unwelcome news was the leading edge of what is likely to be a spate of restaurant and bar closures over the holidays and into January, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID begins traveling through Houston on top of our current Delta wave.

COVID “seems to be picking up in the industry again,” bartender and diner-about-town Chris Frankel posted on Dandelion Cafe’s Facebook page today. “I’ve recently noticed a number of responsible, vaccinated colleagues testing positive and being stuck in quarantine.” Omicron’s ability to break through vaccine defenses is complicating the situation.

It sucks, but this is where we are now.

Houston doctors worry omicron could sweep the city just as families gather for the holidays. Omicron accounted for 82 percent of new symptomatic Houston Methodist COVID cases as of earlier this week, hospital officials said, and is on track to overtake delta as the dominant strain.

“This virus is better able to evade better the immune response we have developed through vaccination and natural immunity,” said Dr. Pedro A. Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

Piedra estimates omicron will replace delta in the months to come. He is not alone in predicting an omicron wave, even as its severity remains a question mark.

Three weeks ago, Houston’s rate of transmission for coronavirus — a key indicator health officials use to gauge community spread — was 0.67, according to the Texas Medical Center. That means each person with the virus was likely to spread it to 0.67 people – nonviral, essentially. That rate has more than doubled as of last week, with a 1.58 rate of transmission.

The number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Houston has quadrupled since last week. Hospitalizations among children have doubled in four days.

The reason for omicron’s rapid ascent is written in its spike proteins, found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID. The variant contains a high number of previously unseen mutations that account for its ability to infect people faster and more efficiently than any previous iteration of the virus.

While scientists hurry to understand its properties, one thing is certain: its astonishing rise was months faster than that of delta.

“We have seen a rather dramatic shift,” said Dr. James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at the Texas Children’s Hospital.

You know the drill by now. Get your booster shot. Avoid large indoor crowds. Wear your mask – N95s are cheap and readily available now. Ventilate well. Use rapid tests and for God’s sake isolate if you’re positive. Minimize your risk and do what you can to protect others. We’re very much in a better place to avoid severe consequences, but we still have to be cautious. Yes, it sucks. The alternative is worse. Stace and the Press have more.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.