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November 12th, 2022:

Election 2022 miscellania: Marijuana, Austin Mayor, CRT

Three items of interest for you. First up, several local initiatives to decriminalize marijuana were successful on Tuesday.

By the end of Election Day, five Texas cities have voted to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.

After Austin voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana in May, Ground Game Texas — the progressive group behind that effort — successfully worked with local organizations and pushed for similar measures to appear on the ballots of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights for the midterms cycle.

Voters in these cities have now shown strong support for the proposals at the polls.

The campaign saw the highest level of support in San Marcos — home to Texas State University — with nearly 82% of the votes. Denton, which has several university campuses, saw more than 70% of the votes backing the proposition.

In Killeen, known for its proximity to military base Fort Hood, close to 70% of voters approved the proposition. Elgin, just outside of Austin, saw almost 75% of votes in support of the reform. And on the low end, more than 60% of voters in Harker Heights in Bell County casted ballots in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

“These meaningful reforms will keep people out of jail and save scarce public resources for more important public safety needs,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas and a former Democrat congressional candidate. “We’re extremely happy with our results.”

Like Austin’s ordinance, the successful propositions establish city ordinances that end low-level enforcement, including citations and arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana and related drug paraphernalia, in most cases. They also largely ban using city funds and staff to test substances for THC, the cannabis plant’s chemical that gets users high.

[…]

Ultimately, Ground Game Texas hoped to use the campaign to boost turnout, especially among young voters.

“We wanted to use workers, wages and weed to engage new voters,” Siegel said.

Looking ahead, Ground Game Texas will continue working with on-the-ground groups to place progressive measures on local ballots. They aim to put the measure along with several other propositions, including abortion decriminalization, in front of San Antonio voters in May 2023. And similar efforts are likely to pop up in other big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston in the 2024 elections, Siegel added.

“We’re hoping that we can prove not only that these issues are popular, but they also boosted turnout in the communities that are on the ballot,” he said. “And in the days following this election, we’re going to be having lots of conversations with folks about the next cycle.”

See here for some background. As noted there, I’m not sure what the practical effect of this will be, and I worry about legislative backlash just because that’s the world we live in now. I’ll be very interested to see if there is any evidence that this drove turnout, because Lord knows we could have used more of it if it did. And while I’m glad to see that there’s interest in bringing this to Houston, please remember that we already have several charter amendments on the ballot next year, which means either this would have to happen then or you’ll need to wait until at least 2025, since there’s a mandatory two-year wait after a successful charter amendment election. Hope y’all are already engaging with folks here about this, Ground Game Texas, so there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone.

Item two: There will be a runoff for Mayor of Austin between two familiar faces.

Austin’s next mayor was not decided Tuesday, as a tight race between Celia Israel and Kirk Watson will continue into a runoff in December.

To win the race outright, a candidate would have had to earn more than half of all votes as of Tuesday. Israel took 40% and Watson 35% of the vote, according to final but unofficial results. They were separated by more than 15,000 votes.

Jennifer Virden, the only other candidate who conducted a significant campaign, earned 18%.

Three other candidates received limited support. Phil Brual received 2%, and Gary Spellman and Anthony Bradshaw each received 1%.

In total, 304,000 votes were recorded.

Heading into the day, political insiders who analyzed the election said they expected the race to go to a runoff, as voters seemed split between Watson, the former Austin mayor and state senator, and Israel, a sitting state representative. Although Watson outraised Israel $1.3 million to $409,000, it was Israel who enjoyed momentum heading into Tuesday with recent endorsements from the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like both of them and wish the eventual winner all the best.

And finally, a small bit of good news on the school board hysteria front:

A very welcome reversal from last year, in a different political climate. Well done, Round Rock and Leander.

The “less is more” option for improving Election Day

This deserves serious consideration.

Widespread problems with Harris County elections likely would be relieved if officials reduced the number of polling locations in favor of fewer sites that operate more efficiently, a Rice University researcher and some recent reports say.

“We do just fine with early voting,” said Robert Stein, a political scientist and fellow at the school’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. “We have all kinds of locations over 12 days and that count goes fine. Then, at the end of election night you have 900 people standing in line.”

That line, like plenty of others, is made up of frustrated voters who, despite Harris County offering 782 polling locations with roughly 11,000 voting machines, encounter confusion and delays as poll workers troubleshoot problems, wait for instructions or replacement equipment from election officials.

County Election Administrator Clifford Tatum, the county’s fifth person to oversee elections since 2018, said Wednesday that officials would assess and investigate problems with this week’s mid-term election once they have completed the final tally and verified election results.

“We will look at every polling location,” Tatum said.

[…]

Tuesday’s election and others in recent years indicate the way to a smoother day is to decrease the number of places where problems can occur by reducing where people can cast a vote, Stein said.

Stein, who has studied local elections for more than 40 years and spent the past decade examining turnout and voter habits, said numerous analyses have shown voters likely can be better served with larger, more efficiently operated polling locations strategic to where they can conveniently vote.

The benefit would be two-fold, Stein said.

First, poll workers could be better distributed on Election Day so issues can be triaged as they arise. Currently, a polling location with six workers can grind to a halt if a single machine goes down and all the workers are huddling to handle the problem. Larger facilities can operate more smoothly because some election officials can focus on specific issues, such as technology, while less tech-savvy poll workers maintain the operations and check voters in. Reducing locations also means polling sites would have more machines at their disposal.

All of those changes would allow better use of “queuing theory,” the same research stores use to sell people more items with fewer workers. Better management of lines has been shown to improve not only the time voters spend in line, but their confidence in elections and likelihood to vote, according to a study jointly managed by Caltech and MIT.

Fewer polling places also would reduce the number of voting machines that need to be brought to a central counting location, verified, certified and uploaded, which should speed up the counting process.

Stein said more study is needed to calculate exactly how many polling locations are the correct amount for Harris County, and where they should be located, but it is likely a more efficient election could be conducted with hundreds of fewer sites.

Harris County already had trimmed the number of polling places this year, mostly because of a new state law requiring all votes be backed up with a paper ballot, that meant the county had to purchase and train scores of election volunteers on new machines. In 2020, the last major election — held during the COVID-19 pandemic — election officials offered 122 locations for the 12 days of early voting and 807 on Election Day.

[…]

The challenge to reducing polling locations in the Houston area, however, is politics of the most local level. Opposition to reducing the number of polling stations, historically, has been widespread because of fears it would disenfranchise low-income Black and Latino voters by removing neighborhood-centric sites and force suburban — often Republican — voters to drive farther to cast a ballot.

Most voters, however, do not vote in their neighborhood precincts, studies and the recent election show. Of the 1.1 million ballots cast in Harris County this cycle, nearly 700,000 were completed at 99 locations during early voting. Another 61,000 ballots were submitted by mail.

That leaves the approximately 350,000 people who voted Tuesday, many of whom crowded into major locations such as the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Gray Street, Trini Mendenhall Community Center and Jersey Village Municipal Government Center, all of which acted as early voting and Election Day sites.

Election officials could not produce a detailed list of where people voted Tuesday, citing the work they doing to finalize the election, but early voting indicates — as Stein said research also suggests — people vote where it is convenient for them but not necessarily closest.

Stein compared election locations to Starbucks, where someone’s habits may change but center on the most convenient choice. It may not be the closest one, he said, but it is the one on their way to work or while running errands.

“I can go back in time and model it,” Stein said. “You have got to know exactly where every voter is going to vote and you can get close with it. Is it perfect? No, but you can get pretty close.”

Additionally, local officials can leverage other options to easily connect people with polls. Metropolitan Transit Authority already offers free rides to polls through early voting and on Election Day, for example.

Early voting indicates voters already are finding their way to the most convenient places. Despite the 99 early voting locations being chosen to cover most of the county, the locations visited by the most voters are those located in major hubs for shopping or business, or where high concentrations of people pass by on their daily commutes. As a result, 50 of the locations handled 537,471 of the voters, while the other 49 saw 155,007 voters.

I feel like we had a version of this debate when the idea of voting centers was first proposed for Harris County. People at the time were very attached to the idea of voting in their neighborhood, and that’s understandable. Black and Hispanic communities have fought for generations for access to the ballot box, and being able to vote in their neighborhoods was both a symbol of their victory and an activity that had a lot of meaning. The fear that they would not be able to do that and would have to go someplace unfamiliar, possibly unwelcoming, and possibly inaccessible to some, was legitimate and a real reason to be wary if not opposed to the concept.

I believe that is different now, mostly because early voting is so popular and because voting at any location on Election Day is no longer new and unknown. The reason we have nearly as many Election Day locations where anyone can cast a vote as we did precinct locations where you could only vote at the one where you lived is basically the compromise that allowed for this hybrid version of voting centers to be initiated. The idea was always to consolidate voting locations on Election Day. It really does make sense and should eliminate a lot of the issues that caused delays, as Stein lays out in the story. And now that people are much more acclimated to the idea of voting wherever on Election Day, not to mention the fact that far fewer people wait until Election Day to vote, I would think moving towards that original vision, coupled with a plan and a promise to make both the voting experience and the vote-counting experience smoother and simpler and less time-consuming, ought to work. It’s absolutely worth a try. Campos and Stace have more.

Trump judge blocks student loan forgiveness order

Same crap, different day.

A federal judge in North Texas ruled on Thursday that President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program is “unlawful,” the latest challenge to the policy that has seen several attacks from conservative groups.

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman said in court files that he declared the loan forgiveness plan unlawful because Biden did not follow federal procedures to allow for public comment prior to the policy’s announcement.

In October, the Job Creators Network Foundation filed the lawsuit in the North Texas court on behalf of two borrowers who don’t qualify for all of the program’s benefits. Those borrowers disagreed with the program’s eligibility criteria and the lawsuit alleged that they could not voice their disagreement.

The latest attack on Biden’s loan forgiveness programs comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit temporarily halted the program last month in response to a lawsuit from six GOP-led states. The Texas lawsuit joins a growing number of legal challenges to the loan forgiveness plan that Biden announced in August. Borrowers started applying for the program in October.

[…]

The Texas lawsuit alleges that Biden’s program violated the Administrative Procedure Act by not providing a public comment period. The lawsuit also argues the Secretary of Education does not have the authority to implement the program.

Alexander Taylor, one of the plaintiffs, is not eligible for $20,000 in forgiveness because he did not receive a Pell Grant, which is only available to low-income students, and therefore will only be entitled to $10,000 off his student loans.

The other plaintiff, Myra Brown, has privately held loans that are no longer covered by Biden’s plan. Earlier in the program’s existence, commercially held loans like Brown’s could be consolidated into Direct Loans, which meet the eligibility requirements of Biden’s program, but the Education Department changed this policy after fielding multiple lawsuits from conservative states.

In response to the lawsuit, the Justice Department argued last month that Biden’s plan doesn’t require notice and comment.

I guess we should be thankful that this is based on a colorable legal claim, one that at least theoretically could be addressed in a subsequent order if it came to that, and not on some bullshit Constitutional theory invented last week by a drone in a Federalist Society lab. It’s still the case that every two-bit Trump-appointed or adjacent district judge thinks they have a national veto on anything the President does, and that’s not how this is supposed to work. It really would be nice if we could restore a little balance here.

Click out

Gotta say, this is shocking.

Six days after winning a World Series title, the Astros parted ways with general manager James Click on Friday, ending months of intensifying speculation with unprecedented action and throwing one of the sport’s most successful franchises into a new state of chaos.

In a three-year tenure marred by tumult he did not create and carried by a core of players he inherited from predecessors, Click sustained the franchise’s golden era, but could not coexist with an owner who demanded more. Click oversaw three American League Championship Series appearances, two American League pennants and, this year, the Astros’ second World Series title in franchise history.

“We are grateful for all of James’ contributions,” owner Jim Crane said in a statement. “We have had great success in each of his three seasons, and James has been an important part of that success. I want to personally thank him and wish him and his family well moving forward.”

[…]

An Astros spokesman said Crane would not be commenting further on his unprecedented action. No general manager in 75 years had lost their job an offseason after guiding a team to a World Series title.

According to the Society of Baseball Research, the last who did, Larry MacPhail, resigned in 1947 after entering the New York Yankees’ World Series winning clubhouse “in a “drunken stupor” during which he “unleashed a barrage of insults, punched a writer, and announced his resignation.”

Click authored nothing so absurd. His downfall came gradually, after a chasm among him, Crane and manager Dusty Baker festered behind the scenes of standout on-field performance.

Obviously there was conflict between the three team leaders, and in the end James Click was the odd one out. That doesn’t speak well for the Astros as an organization, but it’s unlikely to hinder them. They still have a ton of talent, and I’d say will have their pick of successors if they choose to go outside for the next one. They’ll continue to be among the favorites to win the pennant for the foreseeable future. It’s still a weird thing to happen. Fangraphs and Sean Pendergast have more.