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Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

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One Comment

  1. Kibitzer Curiae says:

    The matter of merits is a squirrely thing here.

    At its core, the legal issue in the case involves statutory interpretation of the election code, specifically, the scope of legal authority of an early voting clerk, his or her leeway, if you will, to conduct the election process in the best way he knows how. The early election clerk here the County Clerk, and the County Elections Administrator elsewhere (and will be in Harris County too in future). That’s the issue that Judge Sandill wanted the limit the temporary injunction hearing to, and get it right under the relevant “ultra vires” and temporary injunction case law.

    There is, of course, more to it, and some of the arguments are not legal in the technical sense, but arguments about the real world and public policy and public administration.

    First, there are nonsensical empirical claims, which were aired at the temporary injunction hearing to buttress the AG’s claim that Hollins was doing something unlawful, namely that: (1) Hollings’ “mass mailing” will cause confusion on the part of recipients; (2) will overload the mail-vote processing capacity, (3) that it will depress turnout, and (4) lead voters into committing felonies.

    The confusion claim borders on Orwellian anti-logic, as does the claim that promoting voting by a different and more convenient manner will depress turnout, rather than raising it by allowing folks to participate that otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t. The apparent basis for the mass confusion claim is the Keith Ingram made up his mind before he had seen what Hollins’ team had designed, namely, that Hollins’ mailer contains an explanation of the eligibility criteria, including the gist of the SCOTX ruling on COVID-19 and “disability” as a basis to request a mail ballot. (By contrast, the SOS web site on which the VBM application is posted in PDF does not even contain the statutory language, and also happens to omit forthcoming child birth as a qualifying excuse.)

    As for objection #2, that mass mailing will overload the capacity of the Clerk’s office, who would know better than Clerk Hollins himself how the planned increase in the volume of VBM application and ballots was going to be handled. It’s, after all, part of *his* multi-point initiative. Not to mention that he had already conducted a trial run (for 65plus senior voters) in the primary run-off.

    Again, the State’s director of all things elections did not know about the local situation in Harris County and offered a speculative projection (or, shall we say, pre-judgment of the matter) based neither on familiarity with facts, nor any evidence.

    The leading-voters-into-felonies allegation is the most disturbing. It appears to be a projection of the State official’s very own evil intentions upon Hollins. First, in terms attributing intent and motive, it’s preposterous to think that Hollins and Harris County would want Harris County voters to end up in jail for exercising their right to vote. The Republican Attorney General is the one threatening felony prosecutions for voters that get their self-assessment as “disabled” wrong, and Ingram testified that his office makes referrals to the AG for criminal prosecution. So who here has election crimes and their prosecution on their mind?

    Indeed, the fact that the AG has threatened criminal prosecution over mail-vote application that are in his view not legitimate is actually a compelling argument for mailing educational material to all voters, so they will know about the eligibility criteria and the Supreme Court’s ruling in In re State, No. 20-0394, and make the right decision. Neither the SOS (on her website), nor the private mailers of VBM applications (i.e., political parties, campaigns, and other organizations) provide the eligibility information. Nor does the mass mailer recently sent by the U.S. Postal Service.

    But the appeal in this case involves the denial of a temporary injunction, and for that to succeed the appellant (here, the State/AG) must show that trial court judge (Judge Sandill) abused his discretion in failing to find that the State satisfied each of the temporary injunction criteria.

    HAST THOU NO SYMPATHY FOR THE KING’S SOVEREIGN INJURY?

    The temporary injunction elements call for evidence, not just a clever statutory construction argument, and an incantation for Saint Antonin Scalia on how to be a better reader of text. That includes the requirement to show imminent harm if the injunction is not granted.

    So what’s the harm here that results from informing voters what to watch out for before they apply to vote by mail? So they will follow the SCOTX pronouncement and minimize chance of the AG coming after them with felony charges for disobedience to the judicially pronounced “disability” definition.

    And what’s the harm in sending registered voters machine-readable application forms that can be processed much faster and with less error than forms from other sources that must be matched against the registration rolls? (Hollins’ mailers are bar-coded with the voter’s information, which need not therefore be entered manually when returned by the applicant).

    NEW PRECEDENT FOR THE UNPRECEDENTED?

    Let’s see what the Supremes will extemporize for the occasion, to put Hollins in his place under the motto “We don’t need no stinkin’ new ideas”. Not from your kind anyhow.