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Bexar County

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

Our wishy-washy Governor

It’s all about evading responsibility. At least now it’s starting to become clear to people.

Counties and cities across Texas swiftly followed Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s lead this week after he ordered businesses — without opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott — to require employees and customers wear face masks when social distancing is not possible.

Although the governor issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public, Abbott on Wednesday commended Wolff for putting the onus for face masks on businesses. In an interview with KWTX, Abbott said the local official “finally figured that out.”

“Government cannot require individuals to wear masks,” he added. “Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan.”

But those assertions have brought quick criticism from local officials — and lawmakers from within Abbott’s own party.

City and county officials, some of whom signed on to a letter asking for the power to mandate face masks, fault Abbott for two things. They say he should have explicitly told them that businesses could require face masks. And, they say, his lack of a statewide mandate even as he emphasized the importance of wearing a mask prompted some Texans to let their guards down against taking precautions to stop the virus’ spread.

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Abbott’s comments about Wolff figuring out what the governor’s order allows came the same week that Texas continuously set new records for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. More than 3,100 Texans were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, the eighth day in a row that a new record for hospitalizations was set. And the state reported more than 3,000 new infections a day three times this week, after previously never exceeding that threshold. Those infections and hospitalizations come several weeks after Abbott allowed businesses to begin reopening.

“Our best tool for fighting this pandemic is public trust, and the work that we have to do and putting the public health guidance out front, so that people have the information that they need to make good decisions for their businesses, for themselves and their families is critical,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Friday. “When the orders at any level of government are so obtuse that our partners can’t figure them out, it’s not to be celebrated.”

[…]

State Rep. Erin Zwiener believes the reason Abbott allowed for Bexar’s order to go through is because of the rising number in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. She said she doubts state officials would have allowed the order a month ago.

“Either the attorney general would have ruled it didn’t line up with his order or Governor Abbott would have adjusted his order to get rid of that loophole,” she said.

Abbott initially appeared largely amenable to cities and counties interpreting his earlier directives however they saw fit, deciding when to arrest or fine violators, warn them verbally, leave informational flyers or do nothing at all. Then, he changed his mind and, along with the state’s other Republican leaders, blasted local officials in Dallas and Houston for what they called overzealous enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.

“Ideas were being discussed, people were looking for loopholes, the issue is that the governor created a situation where locals felt like they had to be cautious to avoid being cracked down upon,” Zwiener said. “We wasted the benefit we got from our shut down by not having well-established practices in our businesses that they opened, and not clearly communicating to the Texas public the behavioral modifications they needed to make.”

At an April press conference where he talked about plans for reopening the state, Abbott took away local officials’ ability to issue fines for violating coronavirus-related orders, adding that his executive order “supersedes local orders, with regard to any type of fine or penalty for anyone not wearing a mask.”

You know the story. It’s hard for me to say which was more craven, the Shelley Luther flip-flop, or the “you solved my riddle” baloney. I get the need to reopen, and I understand that different parts of the state were affected in different ways. But that more than anything argues for letting local leaders have more autonomy, because the places that are being hardest hit now are the ones that had been able to get things under control initially, but were completely hamstrung by Abbott’s usurping of their authority. I’ve been asking for weeks what we were going to do if the numbers started to get bad. Now we know, but is it too little too late? If it is, we know where the blame lies.

Hidalgo issues new mask order

Greg Abbott said we could, so there.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Friday mandating that businesses require customers to wear masks, her latest effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

She and other county leaders increasingly are worried about a surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day, which has resulted in eight straight days of record hospitalizations in Harris County. Hidalgo framed the mask rules as a common-sense complement to social distancing that empowers business to protect patrons.

“The idea is to see this as no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service,” Hidalgo said at a news conference. “It gives people an understanding of what to expect when they go into an establishment.”

Her order hews closely to face-covering rules issued by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff earlier this week and will go into effect Monday. It expires June 30, though Hidalgo hinted she likely would seek an extension.

It requires all customers 10 and older to wear a face covering inside a businesses; employees who work at a business where distancing from others is impossible also are required to wear a mask. Exceptions include eating at a restaurant, pumping gas, visiting a bank or anytime wearing a mask poses a health risk.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner was one of nine executives of Texas cities to sign a letter to Abbott on Tuesday urging the governor to order residents to wear masks or let local leaders do so themselves. Turner said he would direct police to hand out masks instead of tickets, as they had done in April.

Turner praised Hidalgo’s order and noted the troubling rise in cases, including a new batch of 972 infections in Houston alone he announced from the lectern. Most of those were the results of tests conducted June 5 to June 10, he said.

“Toward the end of April and the first couple weeks of May, we flattened the curve and the numbers were headed in the right direction,” Turner said. “Now, the numbers are starting to tick up, and so we’re encouraging people, at the very minimum, to mask up.”

Greater Houston Partnership CEO Bob Harvey joined the leaders to announce that the business community supported the mask rules.

See here and here for the background. Mayor Turner has fully endorsed Judge Hidalgo’s order. Dallas County has done the same. And just to put a little bit of pressure back on Abbott, the Texas Restaurant Association has called for a statewide mask order. I don’t see that happening, as we are all too busy being call on to clap harder, but we’ll see how it goes.

By the way, remember the model that suggested the new case count for COVID-19 could climb from about 200 a day, which it was a month ago, to over 2,000 a day? The good news is that we’re still nowhere close to that. Looking at the Harris County Public Health data, we’re at roughly double where we were in mid-May, which isn’t great but is far from an order of magnitude increase. There is some lag built into these numbers, though, so we’ll need to check back in another two weeks, and then again after that to see if the mask order, which goes into effect on Monday, made a difference. We know it can’t hurt. Stay safe and wear your mask, people.

Masks up

We solved Greg Abbott’s riddle, so all is well now, right?

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent blessing, Bexar and Hidalgo counties have imposed a new mask rule for local businesses, saying they must require employees and customers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The move appears to open a new way for local officials to require mask use in certain public spaces after Abbott stymied prior efforts by local officials to put the onus on residents.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s orders comes after Abbott issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public.

Wolff’s order states that, starting Monday and running through the end of the month, businesses in Bexar County must require face masks “where six feet of separation is not feasible” before the business risks facing a fine of up to $1,000. Cortez’s order states businesses in Hidalgo County will risk being fined starting Saturday and will remain in effect until further notice.

The orders also state that, consistent with Abbott’s executive order, “no civil or criminal penalty will be imposed on individuals for failure to wear a face covering.” Later in the day, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg signed an update to his emergency health order to express support for and adopt Wolff’s order, saying that, as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the city, “masks are our best line of defense.”

[…]

“I’m pleased that the Governor has changed his mind. I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the Commissioner’s Court to look at very soon,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement, who said he’s already looking into whether he’ll follow suit.

A spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they are checking with the county attorney’s office on Wolff’s order, adding that “we’re not any safer today than we were in March. There is no vaccine. No cure. We remain very concerned about the trajectory of hospital admissions.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had already warned officials in big cities, including San Antonio, to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that featured stricter coronavirus restrictions than those of the state, while hinting of lawsuits if they do not. Paxton’s office declined to comment on Wolff’s order Wednesday.

See here for some background. The city of Austin has already issued a similar order, and I figure it’s just a matter of time before Harris and Dallas and a bunch of other places follow suit. I feel confident saying that the wingnut contingent will not take this lying down, so the question is whether they fight back via Hotze lawsuit, or do actual elected Republicans with their own power and ambition like Ken Paxton get involved? And when they do, what inventive technique will Abbott find to shift the blame to someone else this time?

Riddle me this, Governor

Parody is dead.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs businesses to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible.

The order requires all “commercial entities” in Bexar County to implement a health and safety policy that includes mandatory face coverings in situations involving close contact with others. Failure to implement the policy by Monday could result in a fine up to $1,000, according to the order.

Wolff’s order, which comes amid a surge in positive coronavirus cases and patients hospitalized with COVID-19, seems to clash with that of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said in April that no local jurisdictions would be able to fine or jail people for not wearing a face covering. Download Wolff’s order here.

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, told the Texas Tribune. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

Under the new order, an individual couldn’t be fined for failure to wear a mask, but businesses can be penalized for failing to implement face-covering policies. Though the County order is “pushing the legal bounds” against the state order, Bexar County attorneys say they can defend it in court, Wolff said at a news conference.

“We cannot rely on the state to do what needs to be done,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who joined Wolff at the news conference.

In an interview with KWTX-TV in Waco, Abbott said Wolff has “finally figured” out what locals can do with masks under statewide order: “Government cannot require individuals to wear masks. However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and business to require masks.”

“Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan,” Abbott added. “Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”

State democrats took issue with Abbott’s lack of clarity.

“If only the Governor had been clear all along that his executive order was a riddle for counties and cities to solve,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) said in an email to the Rivard Report. “Earlier today, I urged him to unshackle local leaders by restoring their authority to set rules essential to protecting public health; I hope he continues on this path.”

Apparently, Greg Abbott has been channeling the Sphinx all this time. Who knew? Maybe there’s also some buried treasure out there, waiting for someone to decipher all the clues in his public statements. I can’t do this justice, so let me outsource some of the snark to a conservative talk radio host:

Perhaps if the original executive order – you know, the one Abbott soon after abandoned in a panic following the outcry from disaffected mullet-wearers – had included the instructions to click our heels together three times, we might have figured it out sooner. Lesson learned for the future, I suppose.

Anyway. Now that we have apparently leveled up, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is considering a similar order, which I hope she follows through on. I for one am never going to get over this particular piece of idiocy.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

Where do they find these people?

News item: Five Texas GOP county leaders share racist Facebook posts, including one juxtaposing an MLK quote with a banana.

Republican leaders in five Texas counties shared racist Facebook posts, some of which also floated conspiracy theories, leading Gov. Greg Abbott to call for two of them to resign.

Abbott and other top Texas Republicans called for the resignation of the GOP chairs in Bexar and Nueces counties after they shared on social media a conspiracy theory that Floyd’s death was a “staged event,” apparently to gin up opposition to President Donald Trump. There is no evidence to support that claim; Floyd, a black Minnesota man, died last week after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“These comments are disgusting and have no place in the Republican Party or in public discourse,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, the GOP chairman-elect in Harris County, Keith Nielsen, posted an image on Facebook earlier this week that showed a Martin Luther King Jr. quote — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” — on a background with a banana. The juxtaposition of the quote and the banana can be read as an allusion to equating black people with monkeys, a well-worn racist trope. Nielsen appears to have deleted the post and apparently addressed it on his Facebook page Thursday evening. On Friday he updated his comments to say he would not resign.

[…]

Even later Thursday, Democrats also criticized a fourth post from a GOP chair on Facebook. Sue Piner, chair of the Comal County GOP, shared a post on Sunday that included an image of liberal billionaire George Soros and text that said, “I pay white cops to murder black people. And then I pay black people to riot because race wars keep the sheep in line.”

Piner could not be immediately reached for comment about the post. The unfounded Soros conspiracy theory is among many that have spread online as Americans have protested policy brutality.

Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush late Thursday said all four county leaders should step down.

Sorry, I was busy reading this classic Onion article and got distracted for a minute. Where was I? Oh, yeah. First, who knew that the Harris County GOP could suck even more than it already did? And that Bexar County GOP Chair, nobody could have predicted that she was an utter wacko. Remember when Republican leaders in Texas believed in more wholesome conspiracy theories? Boy, those were the days.

You can see this Patrick Svitek Twitter thread for more calls from these respectable Republicans for these not-so-respectable Republicans to resign. But that, as they say, is not all. News item: In false Facebook posts, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller accused George Soros of paying protesters to “destroy” the country. I’m not going to quote from this one, you pretty much get the picture from the headline. It’s just that spouting bizarre, racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook is pretty much Sid Miller’s core competence. I look forward to seeing George P. Bush and the rest of those Respectable Republicans call on him to resign, now that maybe Sid Miller may finally be too big an embarrassment even for them.

UPDATE: We’re now up to a dozen GOP county party chairs with truly Facebook posts about the George Floyd murder, and an equally vile lack of understanding of why they’re so disgusting.

UPDATE: And the new Harris County GOP Chair is out. My advice, leave the position vacant. Won’t make any difference whether they have a Chair or not, and there’s one less idiot to say something ugly and stupid in public.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

What if it were Ed?

The question to ask yourself in reading this story about Republicans bitching and moaning about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is “How different would things actually be if Ed Emmett were still County Judge?”

Judge Lina Hidalgo

By the time Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their faces in public April 22, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties already had issued similar measures intended to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Laredo’s mask rule, already 17 days old, also carried a potential $1,000 fine.

Only Hidalgo’s order drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He blasted the rules as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines of up to $1,000 for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments on Monday, hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.

Much like the widening national political divide over how government should manage the pandemic, criticism of the county’s response falls along familiar partisan lines. Hidalgo has sparred with Republicans — and sometimes other Democrats — over releasing inmates from the county jail, closing businesses and requiring masks in public.

The clashes often are proxy battles over Hidalgo’s vision for the county she has pushed since taking office last year, when Democrats took control of Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation.

“More or less, they’re the same fights, but magnified because of the political implications for where the state is going to go in the future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

Some of the critiques lobbed at Hidalgo focus on her youth, ethnicity and gender. She often asserts herself in these situations — whether a public speaker refers to her as a girl or, as Commissioner Steve Radack has called her, “young lady” — but otherwise moves on.

Most of the criticism is not identity-based, however. Many conservatives fundamentally disagree with her expansive view of government, willingness to raise taxes and dipping into the county’s historically high cash reserves.

The two Republican county commissioners, Radack and Jack Cagle, have accused Hidalgo of ignoring her promises of transparency, failing to seriously solicit their counsel and only seeking the advice of experts who are inclined to agree with her. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, formerly the only Democrat on the court, chalked his colleagues’ complaints up to unfamiliarity with serving in the minority.

The complaints extend to her handling of the pandemic. Houston City Councilman Greg Travis, who opposed closing the rodeo and the stay-at-home order, said Hidalgo did not properly consider the economic damage the restrictions would bring.

“It’s up to leaders to listen to experts in various fields and to try to chart a course that is best,” Travis said. “We put 350,000 people out of work.”

He cited Hidalgo’s mask order, which he said was foolish because police had little capacity to enforce it, as a misstep attributable to her inexperience. Travis said if masks were so important, Hidalgo should have required them a month earlier, along with closing down public transit.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I cannot take seriously anyone who thinks Judge Hidalgo should not have shut down the Rodeo – she herself thinks maybe she should have acted more quickly to shut it down – and the rest is petty nitpicking from the peanut gallery. CM Travis’ press release that criticized the Rodeo shutdown is one of those things that is Not Going To Age Well. And really, does anyone believe Ed Emmett wouldn’t have done the same thing, perhaps a bit later, perhaps even a bit sooner? We’ve wasted enough time on this.

As for the Commissioners Court complaints, Rodney Ellis is 100% right. Republicans had forty-some years in the majority. Steve Radack got to build a soap box derby park in Hockley as lord and master of his little fiefdom because he could. The county is a different place now, and they are all cordially invited to sit down and suck it up.

Finally, in regard to Dan Patrick and the rest of the nattering nabobs, again I ask what if anything do you think Ed Emmett would have done differently? Remember, Montgomery County and its extremely Trump-friendly County Judge issued a shutdown order on March 27, a mere four days after the Harris County order was issued. Harris County was a day or two behind the likes of Dallas and Bexar and Travis. The specifics of various county shutdown orders – and remember, it was counties doing this because Greg Abbott was too timid to do the potentially unpopular thing of closing businesses and schools – varied a bit from one to the other, but they were broadly the same. Restrictions on churches were controversial around the state, but only Harris County has the Steven Hotze death squad, while no one particularly cared about face mask orders until Lina Hidalgo issued one.

My point is, she’s done the things that county judges have done, more or less at the same time and in the same way as other county judges have done. But she’s young, she’s Latina, she’s bilingual, she’s not been cowed by swaggering dinosaurs like Steve Radack, and worst of all, she’s a Democrat who beat the one Republican everyone thought would survive the 2018 blue wave. (Did I mention that Dan Patrick lost Harris County by a 56-42 margin in 2018? Harris County doesn’t care what you think, Dan.) Especially for a bunch of self-styled alpha males, the level of whining these guys generate is truly impressive.

I should note, by the way, that if Ed Emmett were still County Judge he’s likely have had some rhetorical rocks thrown at him as well, in large part because the Dan Patrick faction thinks he’s a RINO squish. I just don’t think anyone would be comparing him to a children’s cartoon character. You tell me what that says about the critics and their criticisms.

Might a Democrat challenge her in 2022? Anything is possible, and as we saw this year, nobody is likely to get a free pass. Hidalgo has not been a huge fundraiser, but she’s done all right and she has time to step it up. The questions I would ask are 1) what issue that is likely to resonate with the typical Democratic primary voter would such a candidate champion, and 2) what kind of establishment support would such a candidate be likely to get? The 2022 primary will not be as big as the 2020 primary was, but if there are some compelling candidates for the top statewide offices, it will get decent turnout. For what it’s worth, from my vantage point as Democratic precinct chair, I’ve not heard much in the way of complaint about Judge Hidalgo’s performance – quite the opposite, in fact – nor am I aware of any potential candidates out there shaking the trees. Obviously, it’s ridiculously early, we’re in a moment where basically nobody is campaigning for anything, and there’s still plenty of time for things to happen. I’m just saying, if the bulk of the complaining about Hidalgo is being done by Republicans, I don’t see how that hurts her any in the next Democratic primary.

First hearing for TDP federal vote by mail lawsuit set for next week

Here we go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery has ordered a hearing on expanding vote-by-mail to all Texas voters in advance of the July 14 Democratic Party runoff election. The hearing, set for 9 a.m. May 15, will allow only one lawyer and one staff person from each side of the case, essentially the Texas Democratic Party (TDP) vs. the State of Texas, to make their arguments.

Also because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the public will not be allowed to attend and the number of journalists will be limited, though Biery’s order states that “to give due respect to our tradition of open courts and the public’s right to know, the Court will try to provide audio live streaming through the Court’s website.”

[…]

Biery’s order acknowledges that instituting statewide universal mail-in balloting might not be effective, given the likelihood that appeals in the case might take the final decision past the July 2 deadline for requesting mail-in ballots for the runoff.

That’s the only story I’ve seen so far, so those are all the details you get. As a reminder, this is about the TDP’s federal lawsuit to allow more people to request absentee ballots, at least for the July 14 primary runoffs and SD14 special election. The state lawsuit filed by the TDP, which AG Ken Paxton is currently throwing a hissy fit over, and the federal age discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of young voters, are separate actions. The TDP had filed a request for a ruling by May 15 that orders the state to allow anyone who wants one to request a mail ballot. As this is a morning hearing, and I presume both sides have filed their briefs, we could very well get some kind of order by the end of the day. Mark your calendars for next Friday the 15th.

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Coronavirus is taking its toll on the Census

The timing of this pandemic really sucks.

The nonprofit Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston had more than 15 tabling events planned over the next several weeks where volunteers were going to post up at festivals, fairs and other community gatherings and educate people about the value of filling out the census.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit. One by one, gatherings were canceled, and Texans increasingly became subject to stay-at-home orders.

“This is a very challenging census,” said Ana Mac Naught, census coordinator of the Houston in Action coalition, a collaboration between the city of Houston, Harris County and more than 50 local organizations, including Interfaith Ministries. “We are focusing on what we’re able to do at this moment.”

Local governments and nonprofits knew they already had their work cut out for them when Texas — in keeping with many other Republican-led states — declined to approve funding for grassroots census outreach.

Initial returns show Texas is already behind the rest of the nation: The self-response rate statewide is 31.3 percent compared to 36.2 nationally, as of Monday, the most recent data available. Most households have responded online. After the last census in 2010, Texas tied for the 7th lowest response rate in the country at 64.4 percent.

Now, leaders of groups helping with the count say they’re facing a whole new set of challenges as the coronavirus crisis thwarts their efforts to engage people face-to-face, and they’re forced to quickly pivot to digital and phone-based alternatives.

[…]

Harris County trails the rest of the state with a 30.7 percent response rate while Bexar County is ahead at 32.7 percent. So far, the more affluent, suburban parts of both metropolitan areas are participating at higher rates than the urban cores. That’s something local leaders say they are watching closely, as they try to target the large Hispanic and other hard-to-count communities in both cities.

It’s too early to tell whether the decline is related to coronavirus, but Texas has faced an uphill battle.

According to the Center for Urban Research, one in four Texans belong to a hard-to-count population, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and refugees, renters, college students, children under the age of 5, and the LGBTQ community.

This time period of self-response is especially important, local leaders say, because the more households participate now, the fewer people that stand to be missed later and the fewer households that will require a visit from a census taker.

“People definitely understand that the census is not on the top of people’s priority list,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, coordinator of Texas Counts, a statewide initiative from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy. “We are trying to look for these very non-intrusive ways to get the message out there about the census.”

See here for the background. As I said before, the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there. There’s no reason at all why we have to be slaves to the original schedule, given the life-altering event that has disrupted literally everything else on the planet. If that pushes back the 2021 redistricting process and the 2022 primaries, then so be it. The only impediment is our own willingness to recognize the truth. Houston Public Media, which interviews County Judge Lina Hidalgo about this, has more.

Another “when might this peak” projection

From the Current:

A new study suggests San Antonio’s current shelter-in-place order, which runs through April 9, may not be long enough to ride out the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas is more than a month away from the peak of the crisis, which is likely to hit the state May 2, according to a state-by-state analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The United States as a whole will hit its peak earlier, on April 15. But that’s still days after the Alamo City’s order expires.

May 2 will mark both the date of the virus’ peak drain on Texas’ hospital resources and the state’s highest number of COVID-19 related deaths, according to the IHME, an independent research center at the University of Washington. It made those projections by modeling statistics collected by the World Health Organization and local and national governments.

[…]

Worth noting: the IHME’s modeling assumes the public is practicing strong social distancing and other protective measures. However, it also assumes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott continues not to implement a statewide stay-at-home order and won’t mandate closure of all non-essential services.

After Texas’ potentially devastating peak, the number of deaths and hospitalizations would drop sharply by the beginning of June, according to IHME’s projections. The virus could run its course by early July.

Even so, IMHE expects 4,150 Texans to die from COVID-19 related causes by August 4. It also predicts more than 82,000 nationwide will succumb to the disease by then.

A previous projection done by UT Health scientists suggested that the Houston area could peak in mid-April, with the pandemic burning out in our area by early May. I don’t know much about epidemiology, but I do know that the assumption of when Day 0 is – that is, the day of the first infection – matters a lot, so a variance of even a couple of days could shift things quite a bit one way or the other. Beyond that, I would recommend taking these different studies and projections with the same level of skepticism and trust one would put into an individual poll result: Illuminating and useful, but still just one data point that doesn’t mean as much as it might without confirmation from other results.

With Dr. Fauci’s estimates of 100K to 200K dead nationwide in a best-case scenario, this seems optimistic to me. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a more formal (if not necessarily more precise) quantification of that best case scenario. Note that the numbers given in this projection represent the midpoint of a range of possible outcomes – those error bars are pretty damn wide. Given the uneven implementation of stay-at-home orders and the lack of a statewide order, I’d be prepared for this to end up being well on the low side. But maybe we’ll get lucky. In the meantime, stay at home. TPM has more.

(You can play with the data yourself here. That’s how I generated the embedded image in this post.)

UPDATE: This Twitter thread from Carol Bergstrom, who is an actual expert, explains the concerns with this much better than I can. His interpretation is similar to mine in that this is a “best case” model, but he posits that the “error bars” are the range of uncertainty for that best case model, not for the entire range of possible outcomes. In other words, if the underlying assumption that social distancing isn’t working as well as we hope, or that we’re not doing it well enough for it to work properly, then the range of outcomes we will get will be considerably worse.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

After-deadline filing review: The Lege

Now we come to the State House, which is where most of the action will be in 2020. In 2018, much of the energy and focus was on Congressional races, to the point where some hand-wringing articles were written about the lack of focus and resources on the legislative races. Dems managed to win 12 seats anyway, and by now we all know of the goal of winning nine more to take the majority. Both parties, and a lot of big-money groups, are locked in on this. That’s where we are as we enter the primary season.

So with all that, see here, here, and here for previous entries. The top target list, or at least my version of it, is here. As before, I will skip over the Houston-area races and focus on the ones I haven’t been talking about. Finally, one correction to that post on Houston-area races: I have been informed, and a look at the SOS candidate info page confirms, the two would-be primary challengers to Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 have been disqualified.

The top targets: I will start with the districts that Beto carried, then move to the next tier.

HD64Angela Brewer, adjunct professor of communication studies at UNT and Collin College. You can see a short video of her talking to a local journo here. This district is in Denton County, where HD65 flipped in 2018.

HD66Sharon Hirsch, a retired Plano ISD employee who came agonizingly close to winning in 2018 (she lost by less than 400 votes, 0.6 percentage points), will try again. Physician Aimee Garza Lopez is also running to take on lousy incumbent Matt Shaheen.

HD67 – Four candidates are running (a fifth withdrew) in a Collin County district that Beto carried by five and a half points (incumbent Jeff Leach held on by 2.2 points). Attorney Tom Adair, attorney and El Salvador native who fled its civil war in the 80s Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, former teacher and legislative director Anthony Lo, and real estate agent Lorenzo Sanchez are your options.

HD108 – Another heartbreaking loss, as 2018 candidate Joanna Cattanach fell short by 220 votes, 0.2 percentage points. This was the most Republican district in Dallas County – in some sense, still one of the two most Republican districts, since there are only two left held by Republicans – and yet Beto took 57.2% here in 2018. Cattanach, a teacher, is running again, and she has company, from Tom Ervin and Shawn Terry, both businessmen.

HD121 – I feel like this district, which used to be held by Joe Straus, is a bit of an illusion. It looks less red than it is. Beto won it, but only with 49.7%, while new Rep. Steve Allison (who beat a wingnut in the 2018 GOP primary) took it by eight and a half points. I feel confident the Democratic Presidential candidate will carry it, and it may be Dem in some county races downballot, but much like HD134 has done I expect it to stick with its moderate Republican State Rep. Yeah, I know, I’m a buzzkill. Anyway, 2018 candidate Celina Montoya, founder of an educational non-profit, is back, and she’s joined by consultant and Moms Demand Action state leader Becca DeFelice and Jack Guerra, listed on the SOS page as a “small business owner”.

HD96 – We’re now in the districts Beto didn’t carry, though he only missed this one by 91 votes. I’ll be doing these in decreasing order of Beto’s performance. HD96 is one of five – count ’em five – target districts in Tarrant County, mostly thanks to Beto’s performance in 2018. This is now an open seat thanks to a last-minute decision not to file by Bill Zedler, one of the main anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Attorney Joe Drago has the task of flipping this one.

HD54 – Most of the pickup opportunities for Dems are in the urban and big suburban counties, where you would expect them to be. HD54 is one of three that are not. It’s in Central Texas, split between Bell (blue) and Lampasas (red) counties, it’s been a low-key swing district for some time, and Beto got 49.0% there in 2018. Likeithia “Keke” Williams is listed as the candidate – SD24 candidate Clayton Tucker had originally filed for HD54 but switched to the Senate race following her filing. I can’t find any online presence for her – Tucker mentions she’s a veteran, so we know that much – but I sure hope she gets the support she needs to run a serious campaign, because this is a winnable seat.

HD97 – Get ready for a lot of Tarrant County, with one of the other non-traditional targets thrown in. HD97 (Beto 48.6%) was blue for five minutes in 2008, after Dan Barrett won a special election to fill out Anna Mowrey’s term, then lost that November when Republican turnout returned to normal levels. It’s not been on the radar since, and incumbent Craig Goldman won by nine points last year. No one ever said this would be easy. Attorney and veteran Elizabeth Beck and Dan Willis, listed on the SOS page as an eye doctor, fight it out in March to take their shot in November.

HD14 – The second on the three “wait, where is that district again?” seats (it’s in Brazos County, for the record), HD14 put itself on the list by having Beto (48.4%) improve on Hillary Clinton’s performance (38.1%) by over ten points. Was that a fluke, either in 2016 or in 2018? I have no idea, but any district where Beto can get 48.4% is a district where we need to compete. Certified public accountant Janet Dudding and Raza Rahman, a senior at Texas A&M, have the honors of trying to do that competing.

HD92 – This is – or, thankfully and more accurately, was – Jonathan Stickland’s district. Need I say more? The air is fresher already. Steve Riddell, who lost by less than two points to Stickland in this 48.3% Beto district, and attorney and Air Force veteran Jeff Whitfield, are in it.

HD93 – Staying in Tarrant County, we have yet another anti-vaxxer’s district, this one belonging to Matt Krause. What’s in the water out there, y’all? It’s Beto at 48.2%, and Lydia Bean, sociology professor and non-profit founder and 2018 Dem candidate in the district, is back.

HD94 – Tarrant County has punched way above its weight in the Idiot Legislators department lately, thanks to a cluster of loudmouth anti-vaxxers. That group contains HD94 incumbent Tony Tinderholt, who entered the Lege by knocking out a leading pro-public education Republican incumbent, and who is a dangerous lunatic for other reasons. Tarrant County will be less toxic next session with Jonathan Stickland and Bill Zedler retiring, and taking out Tony Tinderholt would also help. Alisa Simmons, who does not have a campaign presence yet, has that task.

HD32 is a weird district. Located in Nueces County, it was a swing seat in the previous decade, finally flipped by then-rising star Juan Garcia in 2008, when Dems held a total of 74 seats. Todd Hunter, who had represented it in earlier years, won it back in 2010 and hasn’t faced a Democratic opponent since. With Beto taking 47.0% there, it’s again in the mix. Eric Holguin, the Democratic candidate in CD27 in 2018, is running in HD32 this cycle.

HD106 – We’re now very much into “stretch” territory, as the last four districts are all under 45% for Beto; this one, which was rehomed from Dallas to Denton County in the 2011 redistricting, scored at 44.2% for Beto and was won by first-term incumbent Jared Patterson with 58.3%. But if 2018 taught us anything, it’s that things can move in a hurry, so I don’t want to overlook potential possibilities, even if they’re more likely to be of interest in the longer term. Jennifer Skidonenko, who identifies herself as a mother and grassroots activist and who is clearly motivated by gun violence, is the candidate.

HD89 – This is the district that used to be held by Jodie Laubenberg. Remember Jodie Laubenberg? She was the author of HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that Wendy Davis filibustered and the Supreme Court eventually rejected. Have I elevated your blood pressure just a little? Good. Laubenberg went off to do whatever horrible things people like her do after they leave the Lege, and Candy Noble is her replacement in this Beto 43.5% district. Sugar Ray Ash, the 2018 Dem nominee who is a veteran, former postal worker, tax attorney, DMN endorsed, and all around interesting guy, is back for another shot, and he has company in the person of Jon Cocks, whose website is from a prior race for Mayor of Fairview.

HD122 – The most Republican district in Bexar County, held by Greg Abbott frenemy Lyle Larson, Beto got 43.4% here, while Larson himself was getting almost 62 percent. Claire Barnett is a consultant for adult education programs and was the Democratic nominee here in 2018. She’s making another run in 2020.

HD84 – Last but not least, this is in some ways my favorite district on the list because it’s where you might least expect it – HD84 is in Lubbock County. Calling it a swing district is certainly a stretch – Beto got 43.1% in 2018, a big improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 34.8% in 2016, and incumbent John Frullo won by 20 points. But the direction is encouraging, and we’ve known since the 2011 redistricting cycle that one could build a Dem-leaning district in Lubbock if one were so inclined. If nothing else, keep that in mind as a thing to work for in the 2021 session. John Gibson, attorney and the Chair of the Lubbock County Democratic Party, announced his candidacy on Monday, deadline day, which made me happy because I’d been afraid we were skipping that race. I’m so glad we’re not.

I’ve still got judicial candidates and maybe a look at Fort Bend County candidates to look at. Stay tuned.

News flash: Republicans still like Trump

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

As in any sports bar in Texas when the Dallas Cowboys are playing on Monday night, most of the TVs at a British pub in northwest San Antonio were tuned to the game.

But on one side of The Lion and Rose, the sights and sounds were just a little off. None of the fans wore silver or blue. Instead, about 50 people, predominately wearing red, gathered around a bank of big-screen TVs playing C-SPAN as they ate bar food and cheered with each applause line that President Donald Trump delivered on a stage in Kentucky.

Trump’s re-election campaign organized the watch party to connect with more potential volunteers as it seeks an army of campaign workers to help extract more votes, even out of Democratic-leaning areas like San Antonio. The event was part of the Trump campaign’s National Week of Action, essentially a dry run to “activate” thousands of volunteers needed next November to get out the vote.

It was the second San Antonio event in just three weeks — on Oct. 15 the president’s son Donald Trump Jr headlined a rally downtown aimed at firing up the party faithful as well as collecting names, emails and phone numbers of volunteers who can be deployed next fall. And President Trump himself was in San Antonio seven months earlier meeting with business leaders and holding a fundraiser.

“We’re not giving up on one single voter,” said Toni Anne Dashiell, the Texas Republican National Committeewoman from nearby Kerr County who was at the watch party last week.

Dashiell said the strategy is to mobilize while the Democrats are locked in a potentially long primary battle to determine their nominee. While the opposition is working on Iowa and New Hampshire, the Trump campaign is pouring resources into states such as Texas to shore up support.

The Democrats are convinced Texas is more in play that it has been in a generation, but by the time they get their presidential nominee, Dashiell said Trump will be way ahead in building the kind of ground game needed to hold the state.

Still, GOP optimism can be a tall order in Bexar County, which wasn’t kind to Trump in 2016. While Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points, his defeat in Bexar County wasn’t just bad — it was historically bad.

In winning just 40.7 percent of the vote, Trump did worse in the San Antonio area than any Republican Party candidate in nearly 50 years. Hillary Clinton won Bexar County by more than 79,000 votes — the biggest vote margin of victory for a Democrat in the county’s history.

Trump campaign officials say the 2016 returns are a symptom of “having left votes on the table.” They are convinced that if they can begin working now in Republican pockets in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, they can far exceed their 2016 showing.

On the bright side, Trump did do slightly better in Bexar County than Ted Cruz did in 2018. I mean, we know that Republicans are going to work for the 2020 election. They’re trying to register voters, they’ll spend a bunch of money, that sort of thing. What makes that newsworthy, of course, is that they feel they have to do that. It’s not just that Republicans came close to losing several statewide races last year, it’s also that they got annihilated in urban areas, lost numerous suburban counties that had long been their strongholds, and saw Democrats at every level set turnout records. All of that was driven by Donald Trump, and the strong need so many people felt to put the brakes on his destructive reign. Polling data we have so far suggests none of that has abated.

Now having said all that, Republicans should expect to get more votes statewide in 2020 than they did in 2018. I say that because they got more votes in 2016 than they did in 2018. Some number of Presidential year Republicans did stay home in 2018. That’s true of Democrats as well, even with the record-setting turnout, but it’s fair to say that Republicans start with a deeper well to dig into. Not that much deeper – we know that a lot of people with Republican voting history went Democratic in 2018, again as a response to Trump. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that has changed. But there are voters out there for the Republicans to reach, likely more in the rural and exurban areas than the urban areas, and I expect they will mostly succeed in reaching them. Democrats have the harder task, which is not only reaching their 2016-but-not-2018 voters but also finding the new voters, and they have more ground to make up. That’s the challenge we have to meet.

By the way, in regards Engage Texas, the right wing-funded voter registration project: Tiffany and I each received a mailer from them last week, urging us to get registered. Which is hilarious, because we are the very definition of vote-in-every-election people, and we are not the people that Engage Texas is looking for. I mean, even a third-rate data processing operation would have figured that out. Maybe the ROI for this extreme blanketing approach is worth the presumably high cost per new registration that they manage to generate. It’s fine by me if they want to waste their money like that, though. Send us more mail, Engage Texas!

The need for voter registration never ends

A small step back, but I expect a big step forward next year.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Democrats in Texas see registering new voters as crucial to winning statewide elections in 2020, but the number of registered voters in Harris County, the state’s largest, has declined since last year.

Harris County’s voter roll has shrunk by 4,146 voters since Election Day in November 2018, when Democrats swept every countywide and judicial post.

The deadline to register for next month’s municipal elections is Monday.

Two of the state’s five largest counties this week reported fewer registered voters than 11 months ago. Dallas County lost 19,400, while Bexar County increased by 7,554. Tarrant County gained 1,406 voters and Travis County added 13,454. Texas as a whole added just more than 30,000 voters between November 2018 and September, according to the most recent tally by the secretary of state.

Voter registration officials in Dallas and Bexar counties said voter rolls typically dip after general elections in even-numbered years. They said that period is when counties remove inactive voters, who have not participated in two consecutive federal elections nor responded to a letter from the voter registrar, from the rolls. The number of registered voters usually rebounds as new voters submit applications, they said.

“That’s why you see numbers fluctuate,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jackie Callanen said. “We may purge 40,000.”

[…]

Harris County removed 127,852 voters from the roll between November 2018 and August, according to a cancellation list published by the secretary of state. Bennett’s office did not respond to a request to disclose how many voters have registered in the county since this past November.

Bennett shared a slideshow presentation with the Chronicle that noted her office had signed up a record 4,100 volunteer deputy voter registrars this year and has held registration drives at local high schools and colleges.

The Harris County voter roll has grown in each annual November election since 2012, according to election reports published by the Harris County Clerk. The last year-over-year decrease was in 2011, when there were 48,000 fewer voter than the previous year.

Here are the yearly totals since 2012, which marks the beginning of the modern registration expansion period:


Year   Registered
=================
2012    1,942,566
2013    1,967,881
2014    2,044,361
2015    2,054,717
2016    2,182,980
2017    2,233,533
2018    2,307,654

The big gains are in the even years, but even this year there’s been a lot of activity. If 128K people were removed but the rolls only dipped by 4K, that’s a lot of new and renewed registrations. People do move and they do die, it’s just that now we have a chief voter registrar who’s interested in building things up rather than holding them down. You want to do your part, sign up to be a volunteer deputy voter registrar and get us on the road to 2.5 million for 2020.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Voting centers everywhere

In Dallas:

Starting in November, problems like Mr. Voter’s, at least in Dallas County, will be a thing of the past. Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office officially gave the county permission to participate in the countywide voting program the state allows its most populous counties to opt into. That means that whenever you vote, whether it’s early or on Election Day, you can vote at whatever polling place you choose, as long as you’re both registered to vote in Dallas County and physically in Dallas County.

County commissioners voted to ask the state to get in on the program this spring, after county staff said participation would streamline the voting process, potentially increase voter turnout and decrease the number of voters who cast provisional ballots.

“It is time to come into the 21st century and have an election system that actually works,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said in March. “The main point about vote centers is that we have people, over 3,000 people, that wanted to vote during the last election and they were not able to do it. Voting centers bring that to the table. It’s time to make sure that anyone who wants to vote is able to go and vote in the right place without any problems.”

[…]

In order to participate in countywide voting this November, Dallas County had to upgrade its voter check-in system, something you may have noticed if you’re one of the literally hundreds of people who voted in May or June’s municipal elections. Those looking to cast ballots now check in on a cloud-connected tablet that has service from two carriers, in case one is on the fritz.

November’s state constitutional amendment election is essentially a dry run. If everything comes off without a hitch, and Dallas County sends a successful report to the state, the county will be able to offer countywide polling places during all elections moving forward.

In San Antonio:

The Secretary of State approved Bexar County’s adoption of the vote center model Friday for the upcoming November election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners Tuesday.

The November election will serve as the “soft rollout” for the vote center model, Callanen said. Vote centers allow voters to cast ballots at any location in Bexar County on Election Day. The county previously used the precinct model, under which voters were required to cast ballots at their specific precincts on election day.

“When we do publication [of voting locations], we’ll have Vote Center 1, VC 2, VC 3, and addresses listed,” Callanen said. “No longer are we precinct-driven.”

Callanen said she expected people to get used to the new model after a complete election cycle. The Elections Department plans to start its advertising push after Oct. 1 to allow people enough time to hear about and understand the new voting model.

“I think that will take a little assistance to get the word out,” she said.

This year’s Nov. 5 Election Day will feature 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be low. However, county election officials view the election as an important dress rehearsal for the November 2020 presidential election.

Both will join Harris County, which had its dry run in May and will get a fuller test this November, with the city of Houston elections and the Metro referendum. It’s a good thing that voting centers are spreading, because traditional polling places have been going away in the state in recent years.

A new report out from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that Texas is leading the nation in polling place closures, another practice that voting rights advocates fear can lead to disenfranchisement.

The report, titled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” looked at 757 of the 861 counties and county-level equivalents across the nation that were previously covered by Section 5, and found that 750 polling places in Texas have been shuttered since Shelby. That constitutes almost half of all polling places in the U.S. closed since 2013. Fourteen Texas counties closed at least 50 percent of their polling places after Shelby, and 590 have been shuttered since the 2014 midterm election.

Maricopa County in Arizona had the most polling place closures, but that was followed by six counties in Texas: Dallas lost 74 places; Travis lost 67; Harris shuttered 52; Brazoria closed 37; and Nueces closed 37.

“The large number of polling location closures is attributable to the size of Texas and the fact that we’re no longer under preclearance,” said Beth Stevens, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Now, “there’s no one [the state needs] to ask for permission to make changes.”

[…]

This comes into focus when looking at the demographics of some of the counties that saw the most closures. Brazoria County, which lost 59 percent of its polling locations since Shelby, is 30 percent Latino and 13 percent African American. The number of polling places in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi and 63 percent Latinx, dropped by nearly a third. In Jefferson County, where Beaumont is located, about 34 percent of its 250,000 residents are African American and 20 percent are Latino; polling places there dropped from 57 in 2012 to 39 in 2018.

The report attributes some of these closures to jurisdictions adopting the county-wide polling program and opening voting mega-centers. By allowing people to cast a ballot on Election Day at any location, instead of bounding them to their precinct, the program is supposed to make voting easier (more locations to choose from, shorter lines).

The Texas Civil Rights Project is supportive of the program, said Stevens—so long as it’s enacted responsibly. She pointed to counties like Harris and Bexar as good examples: they’ve moved to county-wide polling while maintaining every single polling location that they would otherwise be required to have.

But, the report notes, some counties with large drops in polling locations—like Somervell (minus 80 percent), Loving (minus 75 percent), and Stonewall (minus 75 percent)—didn’t transition to vote centers. The report adds, “voters in counties that still hold precinct-style elections have 250 fewer voting locations than they did in 2012.”

The report is here and I’ve just glanced at some of it, so I can’t give you too much extra context. Some of what’s reported in the Observer is a bit alarmist, however. Loving County had 110 total registered voters in 2016, and its demographics are almost entirely Anglo. I’d bet that its “75% reduction” is going from four sites to one. Stonewall County had 998 RVs total in 2016. Every voter counts, but not every county’s actions are equal in scope. The statistics for Brazoria, Jefferson, and Nueces counties sounds more ominous, but all of them use voting centers as well. Travis County, of course, is one of the pioneers of voting centers; one of the people in charge of implementing the Harris County program came from the Travis County Clerk’s office having done the same thing there. What all this means is we need more information about how well or not these are working and what the effect are on voters of color. Which, as is noted in the report summary, is a hard thing to assess without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This is definitely something to watch, I just can’t say right now what the level of concern needs to be. The Chron, whose story gets more into the details about voting centers, has more.

The San Antonio Chick-fil-A lawsuit

Oh, good Lord.

In a lawsuit citing a controversial new state law, five area residents are suing the city of San Antonio over its decision to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The continued religious ban on Chick-fil-A by the San Antonio City Council has by left citizens with no choice but to take this case to court,” Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action, said Monday at a news conference with the plaintiffs in announcing the lawsuit. “Any other vendor that tries to replace Chick-fil-A at the airport will be doing so under a major cloud of long and costly litigation with the city.”

The lawsuit, which also seeks the city to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, calls for an injunction preventing San Antonio from taking adverse action against Chick-Fil-A or others “based wholly or partly on that person or entity’s support for religious organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”

It cites Senate Bill 1978, a law passed this year in the Texas Legislature, that outlaws government retaliation based on “membership in and support to religious organizations.”

Laura Mayes, chief communications officer for the city of San Antonio, said in an email that the lawsuit “is an attempt by the plaintiffs to improperly use the court to advance their political agenda.”

“Among the many weaknesses in their case, they are trying to rely on a law that did not exist when Council voted on the airport concessions contract,” Mayes said. “We will seek a quick resolution from the Court.”

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, chairwoman of the Legislature’s LBGTQ caucus, said in a statement that it is disappointing that SB 1978 has “created the space for discriminatory lawsuits, such as the one against San Antonio” and commended San Antonio City Council for supporting inclusion.

“LGBTQ Texans are routinely denied fair and equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and economic opportunity — that is what the government should be protecting Texans from,” González said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Current explains how silly this is.

The suit, filed in Bexar County district court, argues that a recent Texas law dubbed the “save Chick-fil-A bill” makes it illegal for the city to bar the fast-food purveyor from the airport. The problem with that, points out St. Mary’s University Law Professor Michael Ariens, is that the law passed after the city’s decision, and courts are almost never willing to retroactively apply statutes.

“I didn’t see any statement in the petition explaining why it is permissible for a court to apply retroactively the statute which serves as the basis for the plaintiffs’ claim,” Ariens said, “And I know the City of San Antonio will raise this as a defense, so I’m not sure what is going on.”

[…]

Also likely dooming the suit is the concept of standing, which requires plaintiffs to show they suffered damages, Ariens said. To that end, the petition only explains that the plaintiffs “use the San Antonio airport for travel and would patronize Chick-fil-A at the airport if it were allowed to operate there.”

Yes. Really.

It’s difficult to imagine any court considering an unmet craving for fried chicken — no matter how tasty — as a legitimate damage.

Yeah, that’s pretty weak, but Chick-fil-A is the golden calf of the zealot faction these days. If nothing else expect there to be a lot of posturing, and it’s only a matter of time before Ken Paxton invents a reason to get involved. This will go on for awhile.

More ways to improve access to voting

In Harris County:

Inmates of the Harris County Jail may soon be able to vote. Harris County leaders have approved a study on setting up a polling location at the jail as early as this November.

The County Clerk’s and Sheriff’s Offices will explore if they can set up a polling location at the jail in time for this Election Day. Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the measure.

“It’s their constitutional right, and so we need to make sure that we’re following that particular law,” Garcia said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded the proposal, which passed along party lines in a three-to-two vote. “Remember, the ones sitting in the jail haven’t been convicted yet, unless they’ve been convicted of something else,” Ellis said. “And for what it’s worth, there may be people in line to visit them who can vote.”

If you don’t like this idea, then I have good news for you: The bail lawsuit settlement means that there will be far fewer inmates in the jail who might get to take advantage of this. Just remember, you don’t lose your right to vote until you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a felony, and if that happens you’re going to a state prison, not the county jail. If you’re in the jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence, you’re still a legal voter.

From Bexar County:

[County Commissioner Justin] Rodriguez, a former Democratic member of the Texas House, is asking the Bexar Commissioner’s Court to form an advisory committee to identify improvements to the county’s voting procedures, step up voter education and drive higher turnout. He hopes the group — made up of residents and members of nonprofits and other stakeholders — can make progress on that work ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting much help from state leaders on how to best administer elections or get people out to vote,” said Rodriguez, who worked with voter-turnout group MOVE Texas to formulate his plan. “I think the best solution for us is to act locally.”

[…]

Rodriguez said he’s confident he has the votes on County Commissioner’s court to support his measure and start assembling the committee in coming weeks.

As that story notes, Bexar County is also implementing voting centers this year. I don’t know what Commissioner Rodriguez and his committee will come up with, but I hope we keep an eye on them here in Harris. I’m sure we’ll be able to learn something from their experience.

UPDATE: Received the following email from County Clerk Diane Trautman:

“Due to the Labor Day holiday and other prior commitments, the Harris County Clerk and Sheriff’s offices are still in the exploratory stage of determining the best way to meet the voting needs of Harris County residents that are in jail. Determining a new voting location requires several steps and usually takes many months to confirm. This process includes wifi connectivity, ADA compliance, available parking, legality of location, and availability of location. Due to voting locations already being set for the upcoming November election, the ballot by mail program will be the best voting option for those who are incarcerated in the November election.”

For more information please email [email protected]

Hopefully this can happen in time for 2020.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

The main concern about voting centers

This Trib story, which is about the implementation of voting centers in multiple counties across Texas for the 2020 election, delves into one of the main concern about them: Voting centers can change from one election to the next, which could mean the closure of a location that has been in use for a long time.

Diane Trautman

The switch from precinct-based voting locations to countywide vote centers is often followed by closures and consolidations of polling places both for logistical and cost-saving reasons. Because the criteria for those changes is typically based, in part, on traffic at each voting site, community leaders and voting rights advocates are wary that could translate to more polling location closures in areas with predominantly Hispanic, black and lower-income residents, who participate in elections at lower rates than white and more affluent Texans.

“Our concern is to make sure that we increase the likelihood of people voting,” James Douglas, head of the NAACP branch in Houston, warned the Harris County Commissioner’s Court earlier this year. “This ought not be about money.”

[…]

Although provisional ballots are used to record a person’s vote when there are questions about eligibility or if a person is at the wrong precinct location, the ballots fall short of fully illustrating the scope of precinct-based voting problems because there’s no way of tracking voters who showed up at the wrong voting site and then went home without voting provisionally. But data collected by the Texas Civil Rights Project showed that the number of rejected provisional ballots cast by voters who showed up at the wrong location crept up from 2,810 in 2016 to roughly 4,230 last year in the state’s four largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant, which are all working to transition to the vote center model.

More than half of those recorded rejections came out of Harris County, where Diane Trautman, a Democrat who was elected county clerk in 2018, moved quickly to implement vote centers and received approval to use a May municipal election as a trial run.

Trautman — like county officials in Dallas and Tarrant — has vowed to leave all existing polling locations in place through 2020. Opening up its 700 polling locations to all voters will make Harris one of the nation’s largest counties running vote centers.

Still, community leaders were troubled by a portion of the county’s written plan to make countywide voting permanent. That plan lists “voter turnout” first under the criteria to be considered for possible future polling place consolidations.

“This is going to be a question and a test for all the larger counties that are going forward” with vote centers, Trautman said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

In weighing polling place closures, counties adopting vote centers typically consider factors like turnout and Wi-Fi connectivity. Vote centers depend on e-pollbooks, which electronically record whether a voter has already cast a ballot, and must be networked with other polling sites.

In Dallas County, election officials are reviewing whether to consolidate dozens of voting sites that are serving voters from multiple precincts and what to do with polling locations that are in close proximity. Community members there warned against closures primarily based on voter turnout even if other voting sites appeared to be nearby.

“Being half a mile is not across the street. Having to cross the freeway is not across the street. We do not support the closures,” said Kimberly Olsen, political field director for the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for communities of color and low-income Texans.

Trautman noted any changes in Harris County would be run by a community advisory committee with an eye toward preserving polling locations that traditionally serve voters of color, residents who speak different languages and people with disabilities, but it’s unlikely the county would move too far from the current number of polling locations. And she said she would not trade tradition, especially in areas where voters have cast their ballots at the same polling place for 100 years, for county cost-savings.

“We have no intention of disturbing that,” Trautman said. “I don’t care if two people voted in that location.”

As I’ve noted before, traditional polling places are often consolidated for lower-turnout elections. In Harris County, for anything other than a November-in-an-even-year race, you were always well advised to check and see what locations were open before you headed out on Election Day. In this sense, that’s nothing new. County election administrators do need to be careful, and solicit plenty of public feedback, when deciding on what locations should be used in any election. I think this is far less likely to be an issue in an election like 2020, but it will be an ongoing concern, with odd-year local elections being a particular spot for problems. Elections administrators will need to be transparent, Commissioners Courts will need to exert oversight, and the rest of us will need to pay attention. If we all do that much, we ought to be all right.