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Bexar County

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.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.

Today is Runoff Day in HD125

Let’s not eff this up, shall we?

Ray Lopez

The day after Ray Lopez advanced to the special election runoff for House District 125 last month, he called his three former Democratic opponents and asked for their support against Republican Fred Rangel.

It was not an unusual request for a runoff qualifier, but Lopez was not taking any chances — and neither are Texas Democrats.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff for HD-125, the party has worked feverishly to avoid a repeat of last fall’s race for another seat based in Bexar County, Senate District 19. Democrats lost that election under similar conditions: a special election runoff in a traditionally blue district where the Republican, aided by top party leaders, benefited from a fractured Democratic field in the first round. And it mattered greatly in the Senate, giving Republicans enough of a cushion so that they held on to their supermajority even after losing two seats in the November general election.

“For us at the [House Democratic Campaign Committee], the most important thing was to not allow what happened in SD-19 to happen in HD-125,” said state Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso, who chairs the committee, acknowledging that Democrats “learned a hard lesson” in SD-19. “We wanted to make sure that right out of the gate, going into the runoff, there was a unified message.”

The HDCC has helped Lopez, a former San Antonio City Council member, with fundraising, mail and polling. Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party has spent several thousand dollars on digital ads, assisted the Lopez campaign with voter targeting, placed party staff in the district, spearheaded a vote-by-mail program and sent get-out-the-vote texts.

In an interview, Lopez jokingly said that he has gotten “probably more guidance than anyone has ever needed.”

Perhaps most notably, there has been a bigger outward display of Democratic unity in the HD-125 runoff than there was in the SD-19 runoff. In the first round of the SD-19 race, there was a bitter rift between two Democratic competitors, Pete Gallego and Roland Gutierrez, and Gutierrez did not endorse Gallego when he made it to the runoff.

This time around, Lopez entered the runoff with the backing of his former Democratic rivals, as well as every Democrat who represents Bexar County in Austin. They have made appearances at multiple events for him, and Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa also has visited the district to stump for Lopez.

See here for some background. The story notes that four days’ worth of early voting for the runoff (out of five total) was higher than it was for the February race. That suggests a higher level of engagement than in round one, which just goes to my point about runoff turnout in general, even if that’s not what we got in HD145. Of course, such a boost can be coming from Republicans as well, but in a district that’s basically 60-40 Democrat, I’ll take my chances. In any event, if you live in HD125, make sure you vote for Ray Lopez so we can finally get all 67 of those Democratic seats we won in November.

Today is Runoff Day in HD145

From the Inbox:

Tuesday, March 5, 2019, is Election Day for voters in Texas State Representative District 145. There will be 27 Voting Locations open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit the County Clerk’s election page, www.harrisvotes.com for more information.

“Only individuals who are registered to vote in SRD 145 may vote in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the Chief Election Official of the county.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 1,417 votes had been cast in the election. This election will determine who will be the next Texas State Representative for District 145.

“While Harris County is seeking approval to implement a Countywide Polling Place Program, voters should remember that currently on Election Day, they must cast a ballot at the polling location where their precinct is assigned,” stated Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot, as well as their Election Day location, by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The list of polling places is here. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in the original special election, you just have to be registered in HD145. Not many people have voted so far, so your vote counts for a lot. I voted for Melissa Noriega, and I encourage you to vote for her as well.

Meanwhile, early voting in the HD125 runoff is underway.

After a special election with four Democratic candidates and one Republican, the runoff has turned into a classic face-off between one candidate from each party. Former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, a Democrat, narrowly won a spot in the runoff election last month with 19.5 percent of the vote, while businessman and Republican Fred Rangel easily led the pack with 38 percent.

Lopez said he doesn’t consider the previous margin to be indicative of how the runoff will shake out because the district is made up of mostly Democratic voters.

“Crystallizing the message for all Democrats to get behind is important, and I believe we’re doing that,” he said. “All my co-candidates [from the previous election] have endorsed me and supported me. They all realize party unity is important. We don’t want to lose a predominantly Democratic area to a Republican.”

Both candidates have acknowledged school finance reform is paramount in their district, as it is in the Legislature, but differ on secondary priorities. Lopez has championed veteran services and job creation, while Rangel said he wants to see property tax relief and lists his anti-abortion stance as a priority on his campaign’s Facebook page. But most of Rangel’s efforts currently focus on telling people an election is happening, he said.

[…]

Early voting for the runoff is Monday through Friday. The lack of weekend early voting is typical for this type of election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said. There are seven early voting sites, and there will be 31 poll sites on election day, which is March 12. Callanen also reiterated that all of the 101,000 registered voters in the district are eligible to vote in this election.

“There’s always confusion when we have a runoff, where some people still think you must have voted in the first election to be able to vote in the runoff,” she said. “That’s not true. If you’re a registered voter in that area, you’re eligible to come to the polls.”

Voters can go to any poll site during early voting but must go to their precinct on election day. Check here for locations. If you’re unsure in which House district you live, you can search by address or ZIP code here. Bring a Texas driver’s license, a U.S. passport, or one of five other valid forms of ID.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Get this one done, Bexar Dems. We don’t need any more accidents.

Early voting begins tomorrow for the HD145 runoff

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145 begins Monday, February 25 and ends Friday, March 1.  During the five day Early Voting period, five locations will be available to more than 70,000 registered voters within the district.  Voters can cast their ballot at any one of the five locations from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

 

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Friday February 25 – March 1 7am – 7 pm

“The Harris County Early Voting locations for this election are only available to individuals who are registered to vote in State Representative District 145,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

For more information about the March 5 Special Runoff Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.  Voters may also visit the website to determine if they are eligible to vote in an upcoming election or review the sample ballot before going to vote at the polls.

Here’s the Chron overview of the runoff. These are the same early voting locations as for the initial election, but by law there are just the five days for it. I do believe we will have higher turnout in the runoff than we did in January, but it will be close. There’s not a lot of money in this race, nor is there a GOP-versus-Dem dynamic, and at least as of today there’s been basically no mud thrown. As is always the case, your vote counts for a lot in these low-turnout elections. I am voting for Melissa Noriega in this runoff, so get out there and either amplify or cancel out my vote as you see fit.

Meanwhile, we have a date in HD125.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday selected March 12 as the date of the special election runoff to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio.

The race for traditionally blue House District 125 has come down to Republican Fred Rangel and Democrat Ray Lopez. They were the top two finishers in the initial five-way contest earlier this month.

[…]

Early voting for the HD125 special election runoff begins March 4.

You know what I think about this one. Barring anything unexpected, this will be the end of the legislative special election season.

On to the runoff in HD125

We could still have a recount, given how close the race for second place was.

Justin Rodriguez

A Republican and a Democrat are moving on to a runoff in the race to replace ex-state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in a traditionally Democratic district.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Republican Fred Rangel got 38 percent of the vote and Democrat Ray Lopez had 19 percent, according to unofficial returns. The third-place finisher, Coda Rayo-Garza, narrowly missed the runoff, coming in 22 votes behind Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council.

The two other Democrats in the race, Art Reyna and Steve Huerta, netted 17 percent of the vote and 6 percent, respectively.

[…]

Rangel, a businessman and activist, was boosted in recent days by endorsements from two top Texas Republicans, first Gov. Greg Abbott and then U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Rangel’s candidacy — and runoff berth — evokes that of Pete Flores, the Pleasanton Republican who flipped a state Senate seat last year after advancing to the overtime round of a special election.

See here for the early vote update, and here for the unofficial election night totals. Turnout was 6.05%, and a bit more than sixty percent of the vote was cast early. We’ll need to see if Coda Rayo-Garza asks for a recount, which she’d be well within her rights to do as she trails Ray Lopez by 0.36 percentage points. Assuming nothing changes – and as you know, I never expect a recount to make any difference – it will be Rangel versus Lopez in the runoff.

Let’s talk about Rangel’s significant lead over Lopez for a minute. Lopez, Rayo-Garza, and Art Reyna are all bunched together in second through fourth place, with their votes distributed very evenly. Lopez and Rayo-Garza combined to outscore Rangel; add in Reyna and the three got about 56%, with the fourth Dem getting another six and a half. On the one hand, Rangel outperformed Donald Trump in 2016 (though Hillary Clinton trails the four Dems in total by about two and a half points), and did better than Republicans other than Greg Abbott in 2018. It’s a respectable performance – better, in fact, than Pete Flores relative to the 2016 baseline. On the other hand, HD125 is more Democratic overall than SD19, so in any remotely normal turnout scenario, Lopez should win without too much difficulty. One hopes that Bexar County Dems will not want to let another winnable special election slip through their fingers. If Rayo-Garza and Reyna endorse Lopez for the runoff and no one is asleep at the wheel, Lopez should win. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not really any harder than a free throw. Don’t screw it up, y’all.

UPDATE: The Rivard Report has more.

Early voting ends in HD125

I have to admit, I’d totally forgotten about this special election.

Justin Rodriguez

The special election for Texas House District 125 has been on a characteristically slow roll as early voting closed Friday in the contest to fill former State Rep. Justin Rodriguez’s seat.

Out of the 103,494 voters registered in the district, 3,354 cast ballots during early voting, putting turnout just above 3 percent. Election day is Tuesday, Feb. 12, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Northwest San Antonio district.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said she expected a low turnout during a special election.

People usually prefer to vote early rather than wait for election day, Callanen said, estimating that about 50 to 60 percent of voter turnout comes from early voting during an election. Based on that number, election day should draw another 2 percent of total registered voters in the district, she said. She predicted total turnout would be between 4 percent and 4.8 percent.

“If we can get 5 percent on this [election], that would be good,” she said.

Five candidates are up for Rodriguez’s House seat that became vacant in January when he was sworn in as Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 2. Former HD 125 Rep. Art Reyna, former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza, and activist Steve Huerta are the four Democratic candidates, while businessman Fred Rangel is the only Republican in the race.

Just as a reminder, that’s right in line with the turnout for HD145, though in this case the majority of the vote would be cast early. If Tuesday in HD125 is like Election Day was in HD145, then they will exceed seven percent turnout. We’ll know soon enough. Unlike HD79, where Democrat Art Fierro was elected in one round, or HD145, where Dems Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega will face each other in the runoff, there’s a decent chance of a D-versus-R runoff here. This district just isn’t quite as blue as the other two, and the Republican here has Greg Abbott’s endorsement; the establishment largely ignored the other two races. This one could be a lot noisier in the runoff.

Speaking of runoffs, I have not yet seen a date set for HD145. However, based on my reading of the election code, I believe the deadline for the result of the January 29 election to be canvassed is Tuesday the 12th (same day as the HD125 election), and it has to occur between 12 and 25 days after that, on a Tuesday or a Saturday. Based on that, my money is on the runoff occurring on Saturday, March 2, which would mean early voting would run from Wednesday the 20th through Tuesday the 26th. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I do know these things are prescribed by law, and the options are limited. Again, we’ll know soon enough.

A first look at contenders in HD125

Gilbert Garcia of the SA Express News points to a potential frontrunner for the HD125 special election.

Justin Rodriguez

Ray Lopez never appears to be in a hurry.

During his eight years on the City Council, the gray-haired, mustachioed former AT&T marketing director was legendary for his calm assurance and willingness to speak at length — often at great length — on any subject. He came to be seen by his colleagues as the council’s easygoing, consensus-building uncle.

But Lopez finds himself in a hurry now, thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor announced Monday that the special election to fill the Texas House District 125 seat, vacated last week by new Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, will be held on Feb. 12, with early voting starting on Jan. 28.

After getting the green light last Friday from Evelyn, his wife of 48 years, Lopez has decided to run for the seat. That means a sprint for a man who likes to live his life at the pace of a casual stroll (or boating excursion on Medina Lake).

The race likely will get crowded between now and next Monday’s filing deadline. Former District 125 Rep. Art Reyna and policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza already have declared their interest and others will follow. Like Lopez, they will run as Democrats.

[…]

One of the most timeworn clichés in politics involves the reluctant politician — the elected official who frequently runs for office yet claims to hate the political game.

Nonetheless, when Lopez says he loves governance but doesn’t get much enjoyment from campaigning, it’s easy to believe him. After all, there’s evidence to back him up.

Most observers of his first City Council campaign, a 2005 runoff with Delicia Herrera, concluded that Herrera won primarily because she knocked on more doors and outworked Lopez. He had to wait until 2009 for his opportunity to join the council.

In 2013, Lopez sought a third term on the council and faced hard-charging challenger Greg Brockhouse. Lopez survived the challenge, but there were moments when it looked like his nonchalant approach might cost him his seat.

That’s why the abbreviated nature of this special election only works to Lopez’s benefit. His name recognition and long history of service provide him a built-in advantage over any other candidate in this race.

See here and here for the background. Garcia doesn’t identify any Republicans running for HD125, but the Rivard Report fills in some other names:

Former District 125 Rep. Arthur “Art” Reyna filed as a Democratic candidate Wednesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Policy advocate and Democrat Coda Rayo-Garza and Republican Fred Rangel, who ran for HD 125 last year, both filed Thursday. Steve Huerta, who currently serves as the Bexar County Democratic Party rules committee co-chair and was formerly incarcerated, told the Rivard Report he will be filing on Monday. And former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez filed as a Democratic candidate on Friday.

Another multiple-Dem-and-one-Republican race, at least potentially. Lopez’s name recognition is surely an advantage, but he first has to make sure people know there’s an election so that they can show up to vote for him. The filing deadline is Monday the 14th, so we’ll know soon enough how big this field is.

HD125 special election set

It will overlap the ones going on now.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Feb. 12 as the date for a special election to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who stepped down last week to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The candidate filing deadline is Jan. 14, and early voting begins Jan. 28, according to a proclamation Abbott issued Monday.

Rodriguez vacated the seat in House District 125 after he was appointed Friday to succeed Paul Elizondo, the longtime Bexar County commissioner who died last month.

The Feb. 12 special election will determine who completes Rodriguez’s term, which ends in January 2021. It also will be the fourth such contest since the November elections, with two more special elections — to replace former state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Joe Pickett — coming up Jan. 29.

See here and here for the background. Early voting for HD125 begins the day before the HD79 and HD145 elections, so assuming at least one runoff in those races we’ll have continuous campaigning through the end of February or so, likely later as this one ought to go into overtime as well. So much for the usually-quiet part of the beginning of the session. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez resigns to take County Commissioner job

We will need that special election.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is leaving the Legislature to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The county’s judge, Nelson Wolff, appointed Rodriguez on Friday to replace Paul Elizondo, the longtime commissioner who died last week. The appointment creates a vacancy in Rodriguez’s House District 125, paving the way for a special election to finish his term.

Rodriguez was immediately sworn after Wolff announced the appointment at a news conference.

“I wanted someone that had the confidence of the citizens and voters of County Commissioner Precinct 2,” Wolff said, alluding to Rodriguez’s long record of public service in the area. “Justin Rodriguez has certainly exemplified that in a very important way.”

[…]

The special election for Rodriguez’s seat would be the fourth such contest since the November elections. State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, won the special election last month to replace former state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston — now a congresswoman — while Gov. Greg Abbott has set Jan. 29 special elections to fill the seats of Alvarado and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is resigning due to health issues.

The 86th legislative session begins Tuesday, and Rodriguez said he was confident his seat would be filled before the session kicks into high gear in March. He told reporters he did not have a preference for who should succeed him.

See here for the background. My guess is that we’ll get an election in early February, with a runoff if needed in late March. Not optimal, but it is what it is. As I said before, this district is moderately blue, not dark blue, so the eventual election is not a slam dunk for the Dems. Unity, if there is a D-versus-R runoff following an initial race with multiple Ds, and turnout will be the key to not punting this seat. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

We may soon need another legislative special election

In Bexar County.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez is expected to fill the vacant Commissioners Court seat of political icon Paul Elizondo, a major local power broker and a veteran of the commission for more than 30 years who died last week.

Multiple sources said Wednesday that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff likely will appoint Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2013.

Wolff declined to confirm that he plans to appoint Rodriguez, but he sketched out what he’s looking for in a successor, in deference to the death of his closest friend. Rodriguez declined to comment.

“I’ve had obviously a lot of time to think about this because Paul has had several challenges with his health,” Wolff said.

The county judge said he plans to appoint someone who has legislative experience and fiscal expertise and can help improve the county’s relationship with the city.

[…]

It’s unclear who might step in to run in a special election for Rodriguez’s seat, which would be called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rodriguez and a few other close allies of Elizondo have been seen as his potential successors. Among them: City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who’d known Elizondo for some four decades.

We should know pretty soon whether Rep. Rodriguez will be the choice to fill that County Commissioners seat. You may recall from when Jerry Eversole stepped down, it is the County Judge who names the successor, so whatever Judge Wolff decides is what will happen. The Rivard Report makes it sound like the choice is more up in the air, and includes Queta Rodriguez, a former employee of Precinct 2 who nearly ousted Elizondo in the 2018 primary, as a potential pick as well.

Rodriguez represents HD125 in Bexar County; he was elected in 2012 after Joaquin Castro decided to run for Congress. After a decade of turnover, he’s the second-most senior member of the Bexar delegation, after Rep. Roland Gutierrez. HD125 was solidly Democratic in 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried it 61-33, but it was closer in 2014 as Wendy Davis took it by a 56-43 margin. If he gets appointed and this becomes a race, I’d expect the Republicans to seriously challenge it. The Dems would be favored to hold it, but it would not be a slam dunk. Keep an eye on this.

The losers of 2018

Allow me to point you to the Observer’s list of six Texas political players who lost power in 2018. I’d call it five-sixths of a good list, plus one entry I don’t quite understand.

3) Bexar County Democrats

Want to understand the dysfunction and ineptitude of Texas Democrats? Look no further than Bexar County, where the local party is dead broke and mired with infighting. It’s a small miracle that Democrats were able to flip 24 county seats in November. But they still managed to bungle several other potential pickups.

After felon Carlos Uresti resigned from his San Antonio state Senate seat this year, Pete Gallego and the local party apparatus managed to lose the special election runoff, handing over a predominately Hispanic district that Democrats have held for 139 years to Republican Pete Flores. Ultimately, losing that seat allowed Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to keep his GOP supermajority in the upper chamber, as Democrats picked up two Dallas senate districts in November.

On top of that, San Antonio native Gina Ortiz Jones narrowly lost her bid to oust “moderate maverick” Will Hurd in the 23rd Congressional District. In a blue wave year, the perennial swing district that stretches from San Antonio to the western border should have been a gimme. But Ortiz Jones ultimately lost by about 1,250 votes — a margin that a functioning local party in the most important part of the district easily could have made up.

Then there’s Julián Castro, the Alamo City’s hometown hero. Along with his twin brother, the supposed face of the Democratic Party’s future decided to sit out the most important election cycle of his career because he didn’t want to risk sullying his profile with a statewide loss in Texas. Then he watched from the sidelines as some nobody from El Paso became a political phenom and now sits atop the 2020 presidential wishlists.

Castro also wants to run for president and is scrambling to lay down his marker in a crowded Democratic primary field, as if nothing has changed since he became a party darling in the late 2000s. The thing is, political power doesn’t last if you try to bottle it up to use at the most opportune time.

My first thought is, do you mean the Bexar County Democratic Party? The Democratic voters of Bexar County? Some number of elected officials and other insider types who hail from Bexar County? Every other item on the list is either an individual or a concise and easily-defined group. I don’t know who exactly author Justin Miller is throwing rocks at, so I’m not sure how to react to it.

Then there’s also the matter of the examples cited for why this nebulous group deserves to be scorned. Miller starts out strong with the Pete Flores-Pete Gallego special election fiasco. Let us as always look at some numbers:

SD19 runoff, Bexar County – Flores 12,027, Gallego 10,259
SD19 election, Bexar County – Flores 3,301, Gallego 3,016, Gutierrez 4,272
SD19 2016 election, Bexar County – Uresti 89,034, Flores 54,989

Clearly, in two out of three elections the Bexar County part of SD19 was key to the Democrats. Carlos Uresti’s margin of victory in 2016 was about 37K votes, which as you can see came almost entirely from Bexar. The first round of the special election had the two top Dems getting nearly 70% of the vote in Bexar. It all fell apart in the runoff. You can blame Pete Gallego and his campaign for this, you can blame Roland Gutierrez for not endorsing and stumping for Gallego, you can blame the voters themselves. A little clarity, that’s all I ask.

As for the Hurd-Ortiz Jones matchup, the numbers do not bear out the accusation.

CD23 2018 election, Bexar County – Hurd 55,191, Ortiz Jones 50,517, Corvalan 2,260
CD23 2016 election, Bexar County – Hurd 59,406, Gallego 45,396, Corvalan 6,291

Gallego trailed Hurd by 14K votes in Bexar, while Ortiz Jones trailed him by less than 5K. She got five thousand more votes in Bexar than Gallego did. Hurd had a bigger margin in Medina County and did better in the multiple small counties, while Ortiz Jones didn’t do as well in El Paso and Maverick counties. They’re much more to blame, if one must find blame, for her loss than Bexar is.

As for the Castros, I don’t think there was room for both of them to join the 2018 ticket. Joaquin Castro, as I have noted before, is right now in a pretty good position as a four-term Congressperson in a Dem-majority House. I hardly see how one could say he was wrong for holding onto that, with the bet that the House would flip. Julian could have run for Governor, but doing so would have meant not running for President in 2020, and might have ended his career if he’d lost to the surprisingly popular and extremely well-funded Greg Abbott. Would Beto plus Julian have led to better results for Texas Dems than just Beto did? It’s certainly possible, though as always it’s easy to write your own adventure when playing the counterfactual game. I agree with the basic premise that political power is more ephemeral than anyone wants to admit. I think they both made reasonable and defensible decisions for themselves, and it’s not at all clear they’d be better off today if they’d chosen to jump into a 2018 race. Life is uncertain, you know?

Ortiz Jones concedes in CD23

Thus endeth that race.

Gina Ortiz Jones

Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones conceded Monday in her challenge to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, ensuring a third term for Hurd in his perennial battleground district.

“While we came up short this time, we ran a race of which we can be proud,” Jones said in a statement. “I remain committed to serving my community and country, and I wish Will Hurd the courage to fight for TX-23 in the way in which our district deserves.”

Her statement comes nearly two weeks after the election. Hurd has consistently led Jones by roughly 1,000 votes or more out of about 209,000 cast, but she had been holding out hope and pushing to make sure all outstanding ballots were counted.

Jones had been particularly concerned with provisional ballots, or ballots that were cast when there was a question about a voter’s eligibility. Last week, Jones’ campaign went to court to try to force Bexar County to hand over a list of such voters before the Tuesday deadline for them to resolve their issues. The campaign also sought a 48-hour extension of that deadline. Both requests were denied.

More recently, Jones’ campaign had turned its attention to Medina County, which had been set to canvass its results Thursday but postponed the decision until Monday morning due to an unclear issue. Jones’ concession came after Medina County completed the rescheduled canvass.

As I’ve said before, if you had told me a few months ago that two of the CD 07/23/32 trio would go Democratic but not the third, I would have ranked the “CD23 remains Republican” as by far the least likely to occur. You have to hand it to Will Hurd, who has now ridden out two very tough elections in which he was a top target. I just get the feeling that no one – well, no one outside of Will Hurd’s campaign team – understands this district. The polling we had was way off base. Democrats made huge strides forward all around the state, yet in the one district drawn to be a tossup they couldn’t move the ball the two or three points needed to win. Maybe this district is just fundamentally different than the others. Maybe the turnout here didn’t skew as Democratic as you might have expected, but could be there in 2020. Maybe the Beto-and-Hurd road show from early in the year gave Hurd enough cover with indies and soft Dems. Maybe Ortiz Jones just couldn’t seal the deal. Who knows? What I do know is that we need to figure it out, because CD23 is still the best pickup opportunity for 2020, even if it’s no longer the only one. I thank Gina Ortiz Jones for her candidacy, and I hope we can build on it next time.

Ortiz Jones requests more time for provisional ballots

She did not succeed, however.

Gina Ortiz Jones

A Bexar County judge denied a request by Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who trails incumbent Republican Will Hurd by a few hundred votes in the race for the most competitive congressional district in Texas, to extend by 48 hours the deadline to make official provisional ballots.

Jones, who is vying to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, which spans West Texas from the east side of El Paso to the west side of San Antonio, filed the motion in an effort to close the gap between her and Hurd in one of the most closely watched races in the midterm elections.

A week after Election Day, Jones said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen had not made public the list of provisional voters in the race, making it difficult for voters to ensure their ballots officially counted.

“We’ve had issues in Bexar County providing information that should be a matter of public record,” Jones said in a news conference. “This includes the list of folks that voted via provisional ballot.”

Jones said her campaign won an order from Bexar County Judge Rosie Alvarado on Monday night to force the county’s elections administrator to turn over the list of provisional voters. Tuesday morning, Jones said the county had not done that and her team had filed another complaint in county court to compel the elections administrator to do so. Jones’ team filed an emergency court motion Tuesday asking for a 48-hour extension for the 5 p.m. deadline to make provisional ballots official.

“This is about making sure that every vote is counted,” Jones said.

That motion was denied Tuesday by Bexar County Judge Stephani Walsh, meaning that county election officials will only have to work with the provisional ballots that had been validated by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Military ballots from overseas would be accepted until 7 p.m. The county will continue to tally those votes in the following days.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the motion. I guess we’ll find out provisional votes have been accepted will be added into the count – as noted yesterday, the Bexar County count added a few votes to Ortiz Jones’ total, but not enough to make it look like she had a serious chance of catching up. The race is close enough that there will probably be a recount, but in the end I expect the result as it stands now will be affirmed. The Rivard Report has more.

CD23 update

Today is the last day to cure a provisional ballot. In the meantime, the counting goes on in the closest Texas Congressional race.

Gina Ortiz Jones

Election officials in 29 Texas counties are furiously counting outstanding votes in the Congressional District 23 election, in which Republican Rep. Will Hurd holds a narrow lead with at least 859 ballots outstanding.

Hurd, a two-term incumbent, thought he had a comfortable win Tuesday night, when the Associated Press called the race for him around 11 p.m.

But the contest tightened in the early morning hours Wednesday, and it appeared — for a half-hour — that Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones had pulled off an upset.

Then the lead changed hands again, and the state’s unofficial results showed Hurd winning by 689 votes. Later Wednesday, a tabulation error in Jones’ favor was discovered in Culberson County. Once the error was corrected, Hurd’s margin had increased to 1,150 votes — out of more than 200,000 cast.

[…]

On Friday, Bexar County — which accounts for more than half the votes in the district — updated its tally to reflect 446 ballots counted since election night. Hurd received 183, Jones 253 and Libertarian candidate Ruben Corvalan 10.

Jones gained a net 70 votes, reducing Hurd’s overall margin to 1,080.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said there’s been a steady stream of lawyers and campaign workers at the county’s Elections Department asking questions about the uncounted ballots.

“We haven’t seen so many lawyers in here since forever,” she said.

At least 859 ballots are still outstanding, according to county elections officials across the district, but it’s unclear how many will ultimately be included in the final count.

See here for some background. The SOS still shows Hurd with a 1,150 vote lead, but as you can see the Bexar County elections page shows more votes counted, so the SOS page is a bit out of date. Ortiz Jones is pushing for more information about the provisional voters, though Bexar County officials say they’re just following the rules about what can and cannot be disclosed at this time. I still don’t expect there the be enough uncounted votes to make it likely that she could catch up, but we’ll know soon enough.

In the meantime, the HD138 and HD108 races remain in contention, while Gina Calanni’s lead in HD132 has increased to 97 votes. Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol Donovan put out a statement yesterday about the HD108 race that included this curious bit:

One of the hold-ups is caused by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. Though Texas law allows people to register to vote when renewing their drivers license, the DMV is notorious for sitting on these registrations and failing to turn them in to the election department of the counties in which they operate. Without this documentation, the local election departments are unable to determine if certain provisional ballots should be counted. In Dallas County, it is estimated that approximately 1,000 provisional ballots are being held, pending the documentation from the DMV. This number is significantly higher than the number of votes that separate the candidates in House District 108.

Not really sure what to make of that, but as I said, we should at least get some official numbers by the end of the day today. Stay tuned.

The CD23 race isn’t quite over yet

I believe it is highly unlikely that the outcome in CD23 will change from the current close win for Rep. Will Hurd, but we are not done counting the votes just yet.

Gina Ortiz Jones

The Texas congressional race between incumbent Republican Will Hurd and Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones is still too close to call following a dramatic overnight in which Ortiz Jones pulled ahead, Hurd pulled back on top, and news outlets across the nation retracted their projections.

On Wednesday morning in Congressional District 23, the state’s only consistent battleground district, Hurd was leading Ortiz Jones by 689 votes, with all precincts counted.

“This election is not over—every vote matters,” said Noelle Rosellini, a spokesperson for Ortiz Jones. “We won’t stop working until every provisional ballot, absentee ballot, and military or overseas ballot has been counted.”

She did not mention the possibility of a recount, although Ortiz Jones’ campaign is well within the margin to do so in Texas. (According to state law, the difference in votes between the top two finishers must be less than 10 percent of the winner’s total votes — in this case, about 10,000.)

But that did not keep Hurd from declaring victory. “I’m proud to have won another tough reelection in the 23rd Congressional District of Texas,” he said in a statement on Wednesday morning, noting that he would be the only Texas Republican to keep his seat in a district carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

[…]

Many news outlets, including The Texas Tribune, called the race for Hurd late on Tuesday evening, with Hurd declaring victory on Twitter and in person to his supporters at a watch party in San Antonio as Ortiz Jones conceded defeat across town.

“While it didn’t shake out the way we would want, we ran a campaign that we are proud of and that really reflected Texas values,” Ortiz Jones said at her campaign headquarters, according to the San Antonio News-Express. Her campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But as more vote totals kept coming in, she surpassed Hurd by a margin of fewer than 300 votes with all precincts reporting. Early on Wednesday morning, news organizations withdrew their call of the race and Hurd deleted a tweet saying he won.

But vote totals from the last of eight Medina County precincts were inputted incorrectly — they had left out about 4000 votes when first entering totals. The fixed results put Hurd just over Ortiz Jones by a margin of fewer than 700 votes.

See here for some background. The current tally has Hurd up by 1,150 votes now, out of 209,058 votes cast. Apparently, a second county erred in how they initially reported their results, in a way that had inflated Ortiz Jones’ total. Late-arriving mail and provisional ballots still need to be counted, though usually there are not that many of them. I’d like to see a more thorough review of what exactly happened in Medina County, but beyond that I don’t think there’s much joy to be found here.

This race was a bit confounding well before any votes came in. The NYT/Siena College live polls had Hurd up by eight points in September and a whopping fifteen points in October. The NRCC pulled out around the time early voting started, presumably from a feeling of confidence in the race, then a lot of late money poured in, presumably in response to the off-the-charts turnout. I had faith this would be a close race, as it always is, but I had no idea what to make of all this.

In the end, the story of this race appears to come down to found counties. Compare the 2018 results to the 2016 results, in which Hurd defeated Pete Gallego in a rematch by about 3000 votes, and you see this:

– In Bexar County, Ortiz Jones improved on Gallego’s performance by 5000 votes, while Hurd received about 4500 votes less than he did in 2016. In theory, that should have been more than enough to win her the race.

– However, in El Paso, Maverick, and Val Verde counties, Hurd got nearly identical vote totals as he had in 2016, while Ortiz Jones underperformed Gallego by 3000, 2500, and 1200 votes, respectively. That was enough to put Hurd back into positive territory.

There was some float in the other counties, but these four told the main story. Both candidates had slightly lower vote totals than in 2016, and indeed Ortiz Jones got a larger share of the Gallego vote than 2018 Hurd did of 2016 Hurd. It just wasn’t quite enough.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

By the time the polls closed Thursday, 33.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, well past the 17.3 percent turnout at the same point in 2014, the last midterm, and close to the presidential-year turnout recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

And Bexar County’s election officials are not alone in having a lot to high-five each other about. Turnout during early voting in the state’s 30 largest counties easily surpassed the entire turnout – during the early voting period and on Election Day – of the 2014 midterm and continues to race toward the turnout seen in presidential election years.

In Harris County, the state’s largest county, 32.3 percent of registered voters had voted by the end of Thursday, compared to 15.5 percent at the same point in 2014. In Dallas County, the number was 35.1 percent, compared to 15.2 percent at the same point in 2014. Early voting turnout in Travis County had already surpassed total early voter turnout in both the 2014 midterm and the 2012 presidential election by the end of Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy and activist voters out there who have been wanting to vote for a long time,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk. She attributed the bump in the number of voters to President Donald Trump.

She said voter turnout dipped slightly earlier in the week, as is often the case, but that the numbers quickly rebounded toward the end of the week, which she said will help alleviate some traffic on Election Day.

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that the “blockbuster” turnout seen during early voting this year sets a new bar for future elections.

“It’s clear that much of the future of Texas will be fought in suburban Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

He said counties like Collin, Denton, Montgomery and Williamson saw a greater number of Democrats turning up to vote than in previous elections. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to win those counties, he said, but it does mean that they have become much more competitive.

“On one hand, suburban Texas is now younger and more ethnically diverse, replacing the first generation which is middle age and white” Rottinghaus said. “And Donald Trump and some of the inflammatory rhetoric have really caused a lack of interest among Republican women and college-educated voters in the suburbs.”

Rottinghaus said statewide Hispanic turnout is up slightly from 2014, which he said is “good but not great for Democrats.” While it looked like Democrats were doing better than Republicans in border counties early on in early voting, he said that it now looks like Republican voters are turning up in larger numbers.

“It’s not the groundswell that Democrats had hoped for,” Rottinghaus said.

The same story applies to young voters, Rottinghaus said. Although more young voters turned out in 2018 than in 2014, he said the 2016 presidential year still has both of the midterm years beat.

“This seems to show that younger voters, although inspired by an electric O’Rourke campaign, still need that push of a president at the top of the ticket to turn out,” Rottinghaus said.

I think what we’re going to get is going to be somewhere between 2008/2012 turnout, and 2016 turnout, which is the current high-water mark. The main question here is how many people who are going to vote have already voted. In previous off-year elections, a bit more than half of the vote – around 55% – is cast early. In Presidential years, the share of the early vote is higher, with that number spiking up in 2016. I’ll show the details later, but for now I’ll say this feels more like a Presidential year, but not exactly like one. As such, I think we’ll still see a decent number of voters on Tuesday, but for sure the bulk of the vote has already been cast.

Here are the Friday/final totals, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  89,098  766,613  855,711

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

About where I thought we’d end up, though the potential was there for a bit more. I think the bad weather on Wednesday prevented some people from voting, with some of them shifting to Thursday or Friday and some of them still needing to vote. Here are a range of outcomes for final turnout based on what we’ve seen so far:

855,711 at 65% = 1,316,478
855,711 at 67% = 1,277,180
855,711 at 70% = 1,222,444
855,711 at 73% = 1,172,206
855,711 at 75% = 1,140,980

2008 EV = 63.5%
2012 EV = 63.7%
2016 EV = 73.0%

In other words, in 2008 and 2012 a bit more than 63% of the vote was cast early, while in 2016 that amount was 73 percent. My best guess, based entirely on gut feel, is that we’ll fall in the middle of that this year, which will put us in the 1.2 million range, or about the total for 2008 and 2012. It could still go higher or lower from there, and in the end the range of possibility is about 200K votes. The weather should be good on Tuesday, so at least there won’t be any nature-induced barriers.

One last thing to think about. In 2016, the top Republican votegetter was Tracy Christopher, who was running for the 14th Court of Appeals, with 621,960 votes, followed by Debra Ibarra Mayfield, running for the 165th District Court, with 621,060. The smallest number of votes any Democrat received who was on the ballot for everyone in the county was 610,648 by Grady Yarbrough, running for Railroad Commissioner. Most Republican judicial candidates, including all of the statewide judicials other than Eva Guzman and all of the courts of appeals candidates other than Christopher and Sherry Radack, failed to top Yarbrough’s total. If turnout really is 1.2 million or above, you tell me where the Republicans are going to get the votes to win Harris County.

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

Texas cities will soon get millions of dollars to help clean up air quality, but Houston officials say the plan for distributing all that money isn’t fair.

The money is coming from a settlement in the Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating scandal. Local governments will be able to use the money to reduce emissions from their vehicles and other equipment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to give the biggest chunk of the money – more than $73 million – to the San Antonio area, mainly because that city is closer than others to getting in line with federal pollution rules it’s currently violating.

Under the state’s plan, the Houston area, which has worse air quality, would get about $27 million.

The City of Houston says about a quarter of the cheating VW cars that were in Texas were driving in the Houston region.

“So we deserve at least a quarter of those funds, because we’re the ones that were harmed,” said Kris Banks, a government relations assistant with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Turner expressed his disenchantment with the amount allocated to Houston in a press release; you can see all of the city’s documentation on the matter here. The full TCEQ plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust is here, or you can save yourself some time and read the Texas Vox summary of it. The TCEQ is still accepting feedback on the draft plan through October 8, so send them an email at [email protected] if you have comments. The Rivard Report has more.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

Opioid lawsuits

From last week:

Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading Texas into a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for exacerbating the opioid crisis among Texans.

In an announcement Tuesday afternoon, Paxton, a Republican, flanked by several assistant attorney generals, said the state is taking the drug maker to court for misrepresenting the risks of opioid addiction.

“We must make those who have caused the opioid crisis feel the pain that they have inflicted on our community,” Paxton said.

Other states, including Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Nevada, are also pursuing lawsuits against Purdue.

While the state is planning to sue, Paxton said the main issue now is getting injunctive relief from the courts so that Purdue will have to stop misrepresenting their drugs.

The lawsuit comes as more states, cities and counties across the United States are turning to the courts as they grapple with how to hold drug makers and distributors accountable amid a harrowing — and growing — epidemic that led to more than 42,000 opioid overdoses in 2016. Main culprits in the public health crisis include prescription painkillers, such as Hydrocodone, OxyContin and the synthetic drug fentanyl, and heroin.

[…]

Paxton’s office wrote in a May 10 letter to the Texas Supreme Court that it planned to file a lawsuit under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The consumer protection statute forbids companies from misrepresenting themselves or their products to Texans. Examples of misrepresentation include false or misleading advertising, exaggerating or misrepresenting the benefits or endorsements of a product or service, making false statements about the manufacture or origin of a product, passing off used products as new ones and price gouging.

Paxton said he’s leading Texas to sue Purdue for several reasons including for lying to doctors and patients about the possibility of increasing opioid dosages without risk, falsely representing that common signs of addiction are signs the patient needs higher opioid dosages and misrepresenting the risk of becoming addicted to the company’s abuse-deterrent formulation OxyContin.

Later in the week, Bexar County followed suit.

Bexar County on Thursday filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors that it says are responsible for the “tremendous expense” and devastating local impact endured as a result of the addiction epidemic.

“As of today we know that in San Antonio 100 residents have died annually from overdosing on opioids,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said at a press conference at the County courthouse.

Filed in state district court, the lawsuit follows commissioners’ resolution in October to pursue litigation against more than 50 companies, including Johnson and Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical, and Purdue Pharma, the maker of the synthetic opioid OxyContin.

“These manufacturers and distributors did not only put opioids into the market,” Martin Phipps, a lawyer with Phipps Anderson Deacon, said at a press conference Wednesday. They also advertised opioids directly to the military and specific populations and misled prescribers regarding potential for addiction and other long-term health complications, including brain and liver damage, he explained.

The firm is working with local law firm Watts Guerra to bring the lawsuit forward on the County’s behalf.

The city of San Antonio may join in later in the year. Dallas County was ahead of the curve.

Dallas County sued a slew of drug companies and doctors this week over their alleged roles in the deadly opioid epidemic, joining dozens of other governments nationwide that have launched court battles.

The 59-page claim filed Monday in Dallas County court accuses at least 11 pharmaceutical companies — including Purdue Pharma, which makes the bestselling painkiller OxyContin — and three local doctors of knowingly pushing addictive drugs on patients while claiming they were safe. The three doctors have all been convicted of illegal “pill mill” over-prescription practices.

“While using opioids has taken an enormous toll on Dallas County and its residents, defendants have realized blockbuster profits,” the lawsuit said. “In 2014 alone, opioids generated $11 billion in revenue for drug companies like defendants.”

[…]

County Judge Clay Jenkins said the goal of the lawsuit is to recoup some of the money that the county has had to pay for medical care and substance abuse treatment at Parkland Memorial Hospital, as well as responses by law enforcement and the jail. The suit is seeking actual and punitive damages, without specifying a number.

“When a large swath of your population becomes addicted to drugs, it’s not just them — it’s a loss of productivity, an increase in criminal activity, the jail cost associated with this — it just hits you across the board,” Jenkins said. “Taxpayers feel all of that.”

I have to assume that Harris County and the city of Houston are looking into this as well. Perhaps a reporter ought to inquire about that. Other states and localities around the country blazed the trail last year. This may all seem far-fetched, but one need only look back at the litigation filed against tobacco companies in the 90s to see the possibilities. At some level, this is what tort law and the civil courts are all about. And when you read about the family that has been raking in millions of dollars from all this, you might think it’s about time someone did something about it.

Sen. Uresti convicted on fraud charges

Time to resign.

Sen. Carlos Uresti

The courtroom was silent and thick with anxiety Thursday morning as the judge’s deputy read the verdicts: “Guilty,” “guilty,” “guilty” — 11 times over, and on all felony counts.

State Sen. Carlos Uresti sat stone-faced, his gaze directed at the deputy, as he heard the ruling that throws into question his two-decade career in the Texas Legislature and opens up the possibility more than a century in federal prison and millions of dollars in fines.

If upheld on appeal, the 11 felony charges — including multiple counts of fraud and money laundering — would render the San Antonio Democrat ineligible to continue serving as a state legislator. Uresti, an attorney by trade, would also be disbarred.

Uresti has no immediate plans to step down from his seat in the state Senate, he said minutes after the verdict. And he will “absolutely” appeal the jury’s decision.

[…]

There were no calls for resignation among state lawmakers immediately after the verdict, but Texas Democrats issued an immediate rebuke of the senator Thursday morning, saying “no one is ever above the law.”

“After being found guilty of such serious crimes, Senator Uresti must seriously consider whether he can serve his constituents,” Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Tariq Thowfeek said.

And state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, another San Antonio Democrat, said that elected officials are “held to a higher standard.”

“Over the next few weeks we need to have a serious discussion as constituents and taxpayers about how we move forward and turn the page,” he said. Gutierrez, whose district overlaps with Uresti’s, could be eyeing the senator’s seat.

See here and here for some background. You can have that “serious discussion” about moving forward and turning the page if you want, but it should happen in conjunction with Sen. Uresti resigning, which frankly he should have done months ago, for other reasons. As such, I’m glad to see this.

“In light of today’s jury conviction of Sen. Carlos Uresti, the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus is calling upon Sen. Uresti to resign his position,” caucus chair Sen. José Rodriguez said in a statement.

[…]

“Voters in this time and age want people who have at least so far [demonstrated] good judgements,” said Leticia Van De Putte, former Democratic senator for Texas’ District 26. “All I know is that if the defense is ‘Well I didn’t know this was wrong,’ it’s very difficult to go back and ask people to vote for you.”

[SMU political science professor Cal] Jillson agreed: “He might find that his political career is ended because of this, and it will provide political opportunities for others.”

Van de Putte served in the Texas Senate from 1999 to 2015, overlapping nine years with Uresti, who won his senate seat in 2006.

“I’m heartbroken at the situation,” said Van de Putte, who later co-founded a consulting firm. “I know Sen. Uresti … has been an amazing champion for abused children. I worked with him on a number of efforts, he’s done great work in the Legislature.

“No one will remember all the great work he did. They’ll remember this case.”

[…]

State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) released a statement Thursday, saying elected officials are “held to a higher trust” and that constituents and taxpayers would have to “move forward and turn the page.”

Political analyst Harold Cook, who has worked in the Texas House of Representatives and as an advisor to Democrats in the Texas Senate, said Gutierrez’s tone implies he’s vying for Uresti’s seat.

“This is what I would have written for somebody [who is] already going to be a candidate,” Cook told the Rivard Report. “Senate districts don’t come up often and they’re not open often.”

District 19 is one of the biggest senate districts in the country, Cook said. “There are a lot of Democrats holding office in those counties [who] would love to be state senator.”

There are others mentioned the story, and I’m sure the list will be long when and if it comes to it. But first, we need Uresti to resign. Step down now, so we can get someone else in place as soon as possible and so we don’t face the prospect of not just one but TWO incumbent legislators going to jail, perhaps during the next session. Among the many things that I hope we’ve learned from the #MeToo movement is the concept that no one is so important or accomplished that they must be shielded from being held accountable from their actions. Please do the right thing here, Senator. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

Bexar County joins in on SB4 litigation

Add another to the list.

Bexar County has joined the fight against Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law.

In their biweekly meeting Tuesday, three commissioners and Judge Nelson Wolff voted to join the City of San Antonio in its lawsuit against the State of Texas in an effort to stop the controversial SB 4.

[…]

Judge Wolff said he received a text message from Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who was visiting his daughter in China and missed Tuesday’s meeting, saying he did not support joining the lawsuit at this time. Kevin, the lone Republican on the Commissioner’s Court, did, however, support Bexar County’s resolution against SB 4 that commissioners signed in May.

At the beginning of the meeting, Edward Schweninger, Civil Division chief for the District Attorney’s office, said he would come back to commissioners within 30 days with an official recommendation from District Attorney Nico LaHood on whether to join the lawsuit. During that time period, LaHood and his office would do more research on the legal issues surrounding SB 4 and lawsuits contesting its constitutionality, Schweninger said.

But commissioners said the County needs to act now.

“I think we need to get on board and send a message,” said Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez (Pct. 1).

See here for the background. Looks like Ken Paxton’s attempt to intimidate potential plaintiffs in anti-SB4 action hasn’t worked just yet. And yes, we’re still waiting for Houston to do something. One hopes that will sooner rather than later.

Sen. Carlos Uresti indicted on federal fraud charges

Very bad.

Sen. Carlos Uresti

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, accused of misleading a former client who invested in a company in which Uresti has a financial stake, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 11 charges over his involvement in the alleged investment Ponzi scheme — in addition to a separate indictment alleging bribery.

In the first indictment, the federal grand jury charged Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat, with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The indictment also charges Uresti with five substantive counts of wire fraud; two counts of securities fraud; one count of engaging in monetary transactions with property derived from specified unlawful activity; and one count of being an unregistered securities broker.

A separate indictment centered on a contract to provide medical services to a correctional facility in West Texas. That indictment alleges that a colleague of Uresti’s, Vernon C. Farthing III, paid Uresti $10,000 per month as a marketing consultant and that half of the money was given to a Reeves County official to win over his vote to award the contract to Farthing’s company — the culmination of a 10-year scheme involving bribery and money laundering.

[…]

A lengthy investigation published by the Express-News in August first detailed Uresti’s involvement in the company and fraud allegations it faces.

Three months later, Uresti coasted to re-election, winning his San Antonio seat with 56 percent of the vote against Republican and Libertarian challengers. Uresti is among the Legislature’s most powerful Democrats. He is vice chair of the Health and Human Services committee and sits on three other high-profile committees: Finance, Education and Veteran Affairs & Border Security.

In February, the FBI and IRS raided Uresti’s law office. In a statement at the time, the senator said he was cooperating with federal agents as they were “reviewing our documents as part of their broad investigation of the FourWinds matter.”

FourWinds’ purported intent was to buy sand and sell it at a markup to oil and gas companies, but some investors have accused the company’s leadership of misrepresenting its financial health and spending their money on frivolous, personal expenses. It now faces millions of dollars in claims from investors and other companies.

Denise Cantu, whom Uresti represented in a wrongful-death case, said she lost most of the $900,000 she invested in the now-bankrupt company in 2014 at the suggestion of Uresti, according to the Express-News. She has said she was not initially aware that Uresti would get a piece of her investment, though Uresti has suggested otherwise.

With allegations of serious financial mismanagement detailed in bankruptcy court, the FBI last year opened an investigation into FourWinds, the Express-News reported. In August, Uresti told the paper that he was a “witness” in that investigation but not its target.

See here for some background, and read the rest fore more. As with Ken Paxton, I will not call for Sen. Uresti to resign at this time, as they are both still innocent in the eyes of the law. Unlike Paxton, Uresti is not on the ballot again until 2020, so he (in theory, at least) has the time to dispose of this before he has to face the voters again. That’s assuming he gets acquitted or the charges get dropped. As with other legislators who face legal troubles, I’d encourage Sen. Uresti to prioritize getting his personal affairs in order by stepping down from his office, after the session is over. Whether he does or he doesn’t, there are several State Reps in Bexar County who I think would do a fine job in that office. I wish him luck, but I also wish he’ll listen to what I’m saying. The Current has more.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

Lawsuit filed against Bexar County over voter ID info

We’re still fighting this out.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

An advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against Bexar County for misinforming voters about the state’s voter ID rules.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), filed the lawsuit Friday afternoon on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP). MALDEF attorneys argue that since Monday, October 24, the first day of early voting, Bexar officials have given out false information about Texas’ voter ID rules in polling places across the county and on a recorded message to voters on the elections website.

The faulty information, MALDEF attorneys say, does not reflect the current court-ordered voter ID rules and could discourage eligible voters from casting their ballots. The current rule lets any Bexar County resident vote, even if they don’t have one of seven state-issued photo IDs. Voters can sign a sworn statement at the polls confirming they don’t have an ID, and show another document that proves their residency (like a bank statement).

In previous elections, Texas residents were required to show a photo ID before voting. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos tweaked the requirements for the November 8 election after ruling that the state’s original voter ID rules intentionally discriminated against black and brown voters. Ramos had demanded the state spend at least $2.5 million to swiftly educate voters on the new rules. Texas officials, however, put that money toward posters and pamphlets with misleading information that made these rules appear unchanged.

According to the lawsuit, Bexar County has failed to closely follow Ramos’ orders. MALDEF attorneys have demanded the county replace the incorrect information immediately.

After SVREP staffers heard about the incorrect posters and documents at Bexar polling places on Monday, they alerted the county’s elections
administrator, Jacque Callanen. Callanen held a press conference on Tuesday, insisting that all incorrect signs had been taken down.

But on Thursday, the attorneys allege, nine voting locations still displayed posters displaying invalid voter ID laws and had elections staffers giving false ID information.

See here and here for some background, and here for MALDEF’s press release. Though there have been various problems reported around the state relating to voter ID and the way the requirements are communicated, this is the only legal action I know of. By the end of the day Friday, the judge in this suit had granted a temporary restraining order to MALDEF that among other things orders Bexar County to remove the incorrect signs and make sure other materials are up to date. Hopefully everything was fixed over the weekend, but whatever the case I would not be surprised if this in not the last time we hear these complaints. KSAT and KRWG have more.

Voter ID problems still abound

Hardly a surprise.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

This much is clear after two days of early voting in Texas: Legal wrangling over the state’s voter identification law is stirring confusion at the polls.

Amid Texans’ mad dash to polling places this week, the front end of 12 days of voting before Election Day, civil rights groups and some voters are questioning how some county election officials are portraying the state’s voter identification requirements, which a federal judge softened in August.

Among the complaints in pockets of Texas: years-old posters inaccurately describing the rules — more than a dozen instances in Bexar County — and poll workers who were reluctant to tell voters that some could cast ballots without photo identification.

Though it’s not clear that anyone walked away from the polls because of misinformation or partial information, civil rights advocates called the sporadic reports troubling.

“Not everybody is an aggressive voter. Some people are shy and laid back, and if you’re told you have to have an ID, it might cause them to get out of line and go home,” said Jose Garza, a lawyer working for groups challenging the state’s strict 2011 voter ID law.

[…]

Now, after two days of early voting, some complain that local elections officials are only further muddying Texans’ understanding.

In Bexar County, for instance, lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said they spotted outdated posters — those describing the strict 2011 ID rules without the new caveats — hanging in at least 14 of the county’s 43 polling places at various points during early voting.

“This is a situation where the Secretary of State produced [updated] materials, and you can find them online,” said Nina Perales, the group’s vice president of litigation. “The idea that polling place supply boxes were being filled with the wrong posters is so incredibly frustrating for people who have been working on this issue for years.”

Donna Parker, a spokesman for Bexar County Clerk Jacque Callanen, said Tuesday afternoon that the old posters had since been replaced with accurate ones.

But Perales disputed that the problem was fixed, saying that her group spotted eight polling places on Tuesday that still had misleading info — outdated posters either hanging alone or adjacent to the updated signage.

Here’s an eyewitness account of a problem that occurred in Harris County. I’m willing to give the election workers the benefit of the doubt. It’s been very busy, all of this is new, and Lord knows there has been a rash of misinformation coming from the state. But that’s the point – the state has been acting in bad faith, and that attitude has been echoed by some local officials, most prominently our own Stan Stanart. The fact that there is confusion should not come as a surprise – it’s practically guaranteed. It’s all of a piece with what is happening all around the country, and the motivation for these actions is plain as day. All of this needs to be stopped, and I hope it’s high up on Hillary Clinton’s agenda after the election. The Texas Civil Rights Project and ThinkProgress have more.

Record registration numbers for Harris County

Nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As registration closed, Harris County’s voter roster had grown by more than 6 percent since 2014, the steepest increase in 16 years. More than 323,890 new names have been added, bringing the county voter roll to more than 2.2 million.

Harris County is not alone. The Texas Secretary of State’s office two weeks ago reported the addition of more than 1 million registered voters across the state.

“The growth is out of proportion of what we have traditionally encountered,” said Doug Ray, the assistant county attorney overseeing voter registration.

[…]

Mi Familia Vota organizers say this election cycle, which has seen Hispanic people put at the center of some vicious debate, has inspired a boom in participation.

“I have seen something I have never seen,” said Carlos Duarte, Texas director for Mi Familia Vota. “Which is, people approaching us with the clear intention to register. In the past, we would have to approach them and explain to them why this is important.”

In recent months in the Houston area, the group has set up voter registration booths at high schools, community colleges, festivals, fairs and church services. It even partnered with several taco trucks to distribute registration forms. The group’s local volunteers turned in 2,700 voter registration forms this year and handed out about 1,000 more.

It stands to reason that if voter registration is way up statewide, then it will necessarily be up in the most populous counties as well. It may be a few days before we have final full numbers, but I’m guessing 15 million is well within reach. Of interest is that in Harris County, registrations among people with Spanish surnames were up 22 percent, while registrations among everyone else were up 10 percent. Make of that what you will.

A few stories from elsewhere in the state. Bexar County:

A record number of Bexar County residents could head to the polls this election, according to early totals from county officials.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the last day to register to vote in Texas, 1,036,610 people had signed up to vote in Bexar County, about 118,000 more registered voters than in 2012, the last presidential election.

With a few hours left to turn in voter forms, Jacquelyn Callanen, Bexar County elections administrator, expected that number could go up by at least 5,000 more.

“We’ve been busy,” Callanen said over the phone from the election office on Frio Street. In addition to a steady stream of walk-ins, the office had as many as 50 phone calls at any given time.

“I didn’t expect to see this huge swell at the end of the last two days of registration,” Callanen said. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Callanen said the elections office had 500 walk-ins Monday and 1,000 walk-ins Tuesday alone. She credits the almost 13 percent increase in registered voters from 2012 to both a booming county population and the fact that this year is a non-incumbent presidential election, “which also has an awful lot of interest.”

Travis County:

Travis County reached a voter registration milestone ahead of this year’s presidential election. Local election officials set a goal after the 2012 election to have 90 percent of the county registered. As of [Monday], officials met that goal.

“Ninety percent of Travis County eligible citizens are registered to vote for the first time in recent history – maybe ever,” said Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s voter registrar.

He says his office has stacks and stacks of voter registration cards.

“You should see the pictures of the piles of cards over here,” he said.

The Statesman puts that at 725,000 registered voters, possibly more, which is an increase of some 90,000+ over 2012. Harris County’s percentage of adults registered is just under 80%, according to the Chron story. It sounds like Travis County is measuring against the Citizen Voting Age Population, which if so is not truly comparable to Harris. Be that as it may, Travis County has always been an overachiever on this measure.

Pre-deadline stories from Dallas County peg the increase at over 100,000 there, while El Paso County was at 420K total voters, or 35K more than 2012, as of Friday. Again, total registrations do not necessarily correlate to turnout, but no matter how you slice it, there’s going to be a lot of people voting this year. I can’t wait to see what the early voting numbers look like.