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Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

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17 Comments

  1. blank says:

    And let’s not get too excited, but maybe we will pass Arkansas in eligible voter participation. http://www.electproject.org/2016g

  2. voter_worker says:

    There have been several recent prominent national articles about the pitfalls of voting by mail. Mismatched signatures, random marks and corrections and missed deadlines seem to occur at a fairly noticeable rate. On another note, Precinct 1 is by no means “the City of Houston”. All four precincts significantly overlay the City of Houston. Precinct 1 is distinguished by having many very small voting precincts that could have been combined over the years but never were. I suspect that may account for the disparity Commissioner Radack is unhappy with.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    Since voting in person is a literal death sentence, and it is impossible for people to vote safely, Chris Hollins is actively trying to entice Houstonians to die. He will be guilty of mass murder. It’s not safe. There is no way to have people vote in person safely. He will be responsible for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths by promulgating this vote in person madness.

    Will Kim Ogg prosecute Chris Hollins for trying to kill people? Why isn’t Lina Hidalgo trying to stop this madman? Where are our elected officials. We’re watching a planned mass murder about to happen, and no one is lifting a finger to try and stop it!

  4. Voter_worker: Thanks for the feedback. I’ve posted a few times about the potential risks of voting by mail, and I have an post in the works about the case for voting in person. But none of these problems are intractable, and we shouldn’t overlook the value in expanding vote by mail because there are some known issues. We can expand voting by mail while also addressing those issues.

    As for Precinct 1, you’re right, all four precincts include Houston. Precinct 1 is mostly Houston, though, more than with the other three. I should have expressed this better.

  5. voter_worker says:

    Charles, I hope I didn’t sound nitpicky; it’s too easy to come off that way in a comment thread. I share your jubilation over County Clerk Hollins’s and Commissioner Court’s initiatives for this election, and likewise hope they form a template for our first ever Elections Administrator going forward. Thanks for your excellent ongoing work here and providing this forum for your readers.

  6. Wolfgang says:

    DATA QUESTION: How many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over?

    Based on an exhibit filed by Harris County in federal and state litigation, the percent of Registered Voters over 65 in Harris County is 18.5%.

    RV Countywide: 2,368,761
    RV over 65: 438,960

    Source: ELECTORAL PROFILE OF HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS. Table 1 – Estimated Harris County, Texas, Registered Voter (RV) Racial Demographic Total & Percentages.

    I assume that the age data is not an estimate because DOB is part of the voter registration data and as such a matter of official record. (The table includes estimates for racial/ethnic breakdown with methodological notes and data sources).

    Also see recent empirical work on voting by mail in Texas: Yoder, Jesse Yoder, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Andrew Myers, Tobias Nowacki, Daniel M Thompson, Jennifer A Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, Andrew B Hall, Absentee Voting Is Popular During COVID-19 But Does Not Change Turnout or Partisan Rates of Voting. Democracy & Polarization Lab, Stanford University (August 22, 2020) (assessing uptake of voting-by-mail option by 65-year olds in 2020 Texas primary runoff elections by comparing them to 64-year old cohort (who are not entitled to no-excuse VBM) based on an analysis of the statewide voter file, and impact). http://www.andrewbenjaminhall.com/Yoder_et_al_absentee_short.pdf

  7. Susan Nerlove says:

    County Clerk Chris Hollins, with the support of a Commissioners Court led by Judge Lina Hidalgo, is doing a fantastic job in the face of obstacles we never could have imagined a year ago. Thank you Charles Kuffner for your ongoing reporting of the status of voting in Harris County as we hurtle towards November!

  8. […] the County Clerk’s statement about this. Toyota Center joins NRG Arena and many other places. Unlike the other innovations being put forth for this year, this one may not be repeatable, as […]

  9. Jules says:

    The Texas Secretary of State has told Harris County they can not send mail in ballot applications to everyone.

    https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/28/mail-in-ballots-texas-harris-county/

  10. voter_worker says:

    Is it too crazy to suspect that the State will comb through all who voted by mail, looking for prosecutable, send-a-message examples? I think a prudent voter would avoid being in that pool.

  11. Wolfgang says:

    INTERGOVERNMENTAL SHOWDOWN OVER VBM?

    So if Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is not standing down, he is going to get sued or prosecuted, or targeted for a mandamus writ … at least that will give him standing to make any applicable constitutional complaints, or perhaps re-litigate the construction/application of the disability issue to COVID-19. That would really put a whole new angle on the VBM litigation, and it would no longer be a partisan issue, but an intergovernmental one. The duopoly parties can both then weigh in as amici curiae.

    Link to Keith Ingram, Director of Elections, cease and desist (sort of) letter:
    https://static.texastribune.org/media/files/9078f160593df832d2704969c73628c5/SOSLetter_HarrisCountyVBM.pdf
    (instructing Chris Hollins that “you must immediately halt any plan to send an application for ballot by mail to all registered voters and announce its retraction. If you have not done so by noon on Monday, August 31, 2020, I will request that the Texas Attorney General take appropriate steps under Texas Election Code 31.005.”)

    Here is the election code provision the SOS is invoking:

    Sec. 31.005. PROTECTION OF VOTING RIGHTS. (a) The secretary of state may take appropriate action to protect the voting rights of the citizens of this state from abuse by the authorities administering the state’s electoral processes.

    [Interjection: Where is the abuse? And which official is committing it?]

    (b) If the secretary determines that a person performing official functions in the administration of any part of the electoral processes is exercising the powers vested in that person in a manner that impedes the free exercise of a citizen’s voting rights, the secretary may order the person to correct the offending conduct. If the person fails to comply, the secretary may seek enforcement of the order by a temporary restraining order or a writ of injunction or mandamus obtained through the attorney general.

    [Interjection: Who is doing the “impeding” and who the facilitating?

    Acts 1985, 69th Leg., ch. 211, Sec. 1, eff. Jan. 1, 1986.

    Sec. 31.006. REFERRAL OF COMPLAINT TO ATTORNEY GENERAL. (a) If, after receiving a complaint alleging criminal conduct in connection with an election, the secretary of state determines that there is reasonable cause to suspect that the alleged criminal conduct occurred, the secretary shall promptly refer the complaint to the attorney general. The secretary shall deliver to the attorney general all pertinent documents in the secretary’s possession.

    (b) The documents submitted under Subsection (a) are not considered public information until:

    (1) the secretary of state makes a determination that the complaint received does not warrant an investigation; or

    (2) if referred to the attorney general, the attorney general has completed the investigation or has made a determination that the complaint referred does not warrant an investigation.

  12. brad says:

    Will someone please change Ruth Hughs’ and Ken Paxton’s nappies?

    I cannot handle these children crying anymore.

  13. […] here for the background. As the Chron story notes, Ingram’s plan is to get Ken Paxton involved if […]

  14. […] not how it works in real life, and it’s why GOTV efforts are so critical. If you recall my post about Harris County’s plans to make voting easier this November, County Clerk Chris Hollins […]

  15. […] here and here for the background. This mandamus makes two arguments, both of which seem incredibly thin […]

  16. […] here and here for the background. A copy of the AG’s filing is here. There are two main […]

  17. […] the Kuff lauds Harris County going all in on expanding voting access, while noting the objections from the Secretary of State to the plan to […]