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Bexar County

Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

No Roe roundup

I don’t have a good title for this post, but I do have a collection of stories.

Planned Parenthood files restraining order against Texas Right to Life.

Right there with them

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and its affiliates filed a temporary restraining order with a Texas district court Thursday night against Texas Right to Life to stop the anti-abortion organization from suing abortion providers under a new law that all but bans abortions in the state.

[…]

Planned Parenthood, which has stopped providing abortion services in San Antonio but continues elsewhere in the state, refers to SB 8 as the “sue thy neighbor law.”

“Anti-abortion activists are already staking out our health centers, surveilling our providers, and threatening our patients,” said Helene Krasnoff, vice president for public policy litigation and law for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a news release. “The physicians, nurses, and clinic staff at Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas — and at abortion providers statewide — deserve to come to work without fear of harassment or frivolous lawsuits.”

This unprecedented enforcement framework essentially circumvents traditional judicial review. Typically, individuals or groups would legally challenge the state as the enforcer — but this law removes the state from the equation. In order for the Supreme Court to review the law, someone will have to sue someone who performed or assisted an illegal abortion; only then it can be challenged.

If the district court grants the restraining order, it would only apply to Planned Parenthood, its affiliates, and an individual Planned Parenthood Houston physician, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who joined the order. This means other providers would likely still be subject to the law.

Texas Right to Life, which helped write the bill, set up a “whistleblower” tip line so people can report violations to the anti-abortion organization. An email seeking the organization’s comment on the restraining order was not returned Friday morning.

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said on Twitter that it will defy the law.

“The ban on abortion in Texas is an abomination,” the nonprofit tweeted. “We want to send a very clear message: RAICES will not obey this archaic and sexist law. We’ve funded & supported access to abortions for immigrants in Texas for years and will continue to do so. Some laws are meant to be broken.”

You can see a copy of the lawsuit, which asks for a temporary restraining order as well as temporary and permanent injunctions against the defendants, “>here. The suit includes 100 “John Doe” defendants as “those individuals or entities who have expressed to other Defendants, whether by words or actions, their intention to enforce S.B. 8 against Plaintiffs”. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I guess we’ll find out. It seems to me that in addition to the federal lawsuit, which is still ongoing despite the Supreme Court’s cowardly and corrupt ruling that allowed SB8 to take effect in the interim, every stakeholder who could reasonably foresee themselves as being on the wrong side of one of these nuisance vigilante actions should do the same thing and file their own pre-emptive lawsuit. We’ve already established that anyone can sue anyone over this, so who needs standing? KVUE has more.

On the subject of that federal litigation, it’s hard to say what comes next.

“This is all uncharted territory,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “So it’s really hard to say definitively what’s going to happen.”

What makes the law so unusual is its private enforcement, allowing nearly anyone to sue a doctor or other person who helps provide an abortion after six weeks, a point at which many women don’t yet realize they’re pregnant. Because the ban is not enforced by state officials, it’s difficult to know who abortion clinics can sue to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

The court’s conservative majority did not rule Wednesday on the law itself, and in fact acknowledged that abortion providers had raised “serious questions” about its constitutionality.

But the justices also expressed doubt about their ability to intervene in a privately enforced law such as the Texas law, Senate Bill 8, and experts said abortion proponents may have to think through other ways to get the issue before the court.

“The federal route is not dead, but the problem with it is it’s going to take some creativity on the part of federal courts to figure out why SB 8 and laws that may be like it are a real problem,” said Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston School of Law.

“If SB 8 is OK, there’s nothing to stop Texas from passing a law that creates $10,000 private bounties for newspaper reporters who write things that are critical of the governor,” Chandler said. “Or for California to pass laws that may create a private bounty against people who own handguns in their home.”

Maya Manian, a visiting professor at the American University Washington College of Law, said the court could have at least temporarily intervened to allow for more time to review the claims.

“There is no question the Supreme Court could have found a way to overcome these procedural hurdles,” Manian said. “Yet they’re using this procedural cover to covertly overrule Roe v. Wade,” referring to the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

There’s no question that SCOTUS’ refusal to issue a stay against SB8 was an appalling and wholly political abandonment of their duty. Maybe the outcry that is now occurring will be enough to actually spur some federal action, both in terms of passing a law to enshrine Roe as the standard, and also to put some restraints on the increasingly overreaching Supreme Court. Just its abuse of the shadow docket is sufficient cause to reel them in. I’ll believe it when I see it happen, unfortunately. Beyond that, SB8 is so vague as well as unprecedented that no one really knows what its scope is. I suspect that was a feature of this abomination.

Back to the Chron story:

Several legal experts said the fastest way to challenge the law may be to openly defy it, a move Planned Parenthood and other providers have so far been reluctant to do.

“There will be someone mad enough to violate the law and happily serve as a test subject,” Mala Corbin said. “Because the women of Texas are not going to take this without a fight. This is their right to control their body at stake.”

Miriam Camero, vice president of social programs at RAICES, a group that gives legal aid to immigrants, said it was prepared to help women access abortion regardless of the law. Camero noted that the ban especially harms immigrants who already have a difficult time traveling to abortion clinics or out of state given their legal status.

“We will continue to assist clients, whether it be in Texas or Louisiana or Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico,” Camero said.

It appears RAICES has already taken that step. We’ll see if they get hit with one of those lawsuits, in which case perhaps there will be a route to swifter action.

Doctors are also very unhappy with this new law.

The Texas Medical Association slammed the state Legislature on Friday, calling its passage of two anti-abortion bills “unconstitutional” and an interference with the fundamental patient-physician relationship.

“Enough,” the organization wrote in a statement. “The Texas Medical Association supports our physicians specializing in women’s health and opposes legislation in Senate Bill 8 of Texas’ 87th legislative session and Senate Bill 4 of this special session. SB 4 contains language that criminalizes the practice of medicine. Both bills interfere with the patient-physician relationship.”

[…]

On Wednesday, SB 8, which bans abortion after six weeks, including in instances of rape and incest, went into effect. The new law is a near-total ban on abortion and one of the strictest such measures in the country.

Hours before that, the Texas House passed Senate Bill 4, which would reduce access to abortion-inducing pills, the most common method for patients terminating a pregnancy. As sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, the bill would prevent physicians or providers from prescribing these medications to patients more than seven weeks pregnant.

Current Texas laws allow, and FDA guidelines suggest, practitioners to give these pills to patients who are up to 10 weeks pregnant.

“SB 8 and SB 4 go too far. Clearly these provisions are unconstitutional, in our opinion. TMA stands for the health care of all Texans and our profession. Enough is enough,” the statement continued.

[…]

“SB 8 allows for a bounty that encourages practically any citizen to file a cause of action against physicians, other health care professionals, and anyone who ‘aids or abets,’ based on a suspicion. If permitted to proceed, this law will be precedent-setting and could normalize vigilante interference in the patient-physician relationship in other complex, controversial medical or ethical situations.”

Meanwhile, the bill that was passed in the Texas House this week, SB 4, which limits access to abortion-inducing pills, would make it a criminal act for physicians to give these medications to patients more than seven weeks into a pregnancy.

“The physicians of Texas never thought the day would come when the performance of our oath would create a private cause of action for persons not connected to or harmed by the action. Yet, that day has sadly arrived in the state we love,” the TMA wrote.

Very heartfelt, and it’s easy to understand their outrage, but last I checked the TMA has been pretty supportive of Republican politicians, mostly because of tort “reform”. You want to convince me that you’re actually mad and not just having a minor snit, there’s an easy way to put your literal money where your figurative mouths are.

Finally, I mentioned the Texas Right to Life snitch site. As you may have heard, it has attracted some attention from folks who intend to disrupt it.

The Texas Right to Life organization created a website for those reports. But instead of citizens reporting on, say, the Uber driver who brought a woman to a clinic, critics of the law are spamming it with a barrage of fake information. Gov. Greg Abbott and Marvel’s Avengers are among those being reported receiving abortions, according to the New York Times.

Part of the flood of false info sent to the website appears to be aided by an activist and developer who posts under the social media alias Sean Black. In a viral TikTok first reported by Motherboard at Vice, Black explained that he wrote a script that anyone can access, which automates the process of letting them file fake reports. Each time they access Black’s script, new information is generated, theoretically making it harder for the Right to Life group to parse and ban people who are submitting fake reports.

As of September 2, not even 24 hours after the Supreme Court refused to halt the implementation of the law, Black told Vice the script had been clicked over 4,000 times.

Go get ’em, Sean Black.

UPDATE: One more story to add: Uber And Lyft Have Pledged To Cover Their Drivers’ Legal Fees If They Get Sued Under The Texas Abortion Law. Kudos to them for that.

UPDATE: TRO granted to Planned Parenthood. A hearing for an injunction will be September 13. No word yet about an appeal of the TRO.

Bexar mask mandate put on hold again

SCOTx has entered the chat, again.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked San Antonio and Bexar County’s mask mandate, marking the latest update in a flurry of court battles over mask requirements statewide.

The decision comes after an appellate court earlier this month allowed the local mask mandate to stand, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public entities from instituting such requirements. The new ruling is a win for the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had asked the high court earlier this week to step in and stop local officials.

[…]

In the order, the high court noted that the lawsuit does not consider whether people should wear masks or whether government officials should compel them to do so. Rather, the justices said, the case concerns which levels of government can make those decisions.

“The status quo, for many months, has been gubernatorial oversight of such decisions at both the state and local levels,” they wrote. “That status quo should remain in place while the court of appeals, and potentially this court, examine the parties’ merits arguments to determine whether plaintiffs have demonstrated a probable right to the relief sought.”

The court has yet to make a final decision on the matter, which could take weeks or months. Several similar but separate lawsuits, including two in Dallas and Houston, are also currently being litigated.

See here, here, and here for some background. This only affects the Bexar County case – the litigation in Harris and Dallas and other places have not yet been taken to the Supreme Court. It seems likely that they would go the same way, but as noted so far SCOTx is not inclined to let Abbott and Paxton jump the line on this, so they have to go through the process first. Also, this is a stay of the temporary restraining order, which means that if and when the judge in Bexar County issues a temporary injunction, as the judge in Dallas County just did, the SCOTx stay will become moot and Abbott and Paxton will have to go through the process again, to get another stay while that ruling is appealed. Isn’t this fun?

Also, as a friendly reminder, never believe a thing Ken Paxton says:

I know you didn’t need to be told that, but it never hurts to say. The Trib and the Current have more.

Back to SCOTx for the mask mandate ban

Brace yourselves.

Following an unfavorable outcome at an appellate court, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the mask mandate in San Antonio and Bexar County.

A Bexar County district judge issued a temporary order on Aug. 16 allowing the city and county to require masks in city and county buildings and public schools. That order keeps the mask mandates in place until December, when a trial is set for the case. Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the state, appealed that order immediately to the 4th Court of Appeals, but a panel of judges upheld the local mask mandate last Thursday.

Paxton took that decision to the Texas Supreme Court on Monday, arguing in the filing that the 4th Court of Appeals’ ruling adds to the confusion over mask requirements in Texas, and asked for “urgent” action.

Paxton wrote that the 4th Court’s action “upends, rather than preserves, the status quo. The court of appeals’ decision thereby compounds the widespread confusion over mask mandates in Texas and frustrates the state’s ability to cohesively address the pandemic.”

The 4th Court of Appeals had judged keeping a local mask mandate maintains the status quo, as a previous temporary restraining order granted on Aug. 10 first put the mandates in place in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Paxton also argued that the state’s high court must take quick action because other cities and counties are being granted their own temporary orders allowing them to require masks despite the governor’s executive order prohibiting that.

See here and here for some background. The 4th Court of Appeals issued its order denying the request for a stay on the same day that the Supreme Court batted back the request it had received in the Harris County case. They could act quickly or they could sit on this and wait for action from other courts, because Lord knows there’s a ton of litigation out there.

Speaking of other litigation

A Dallas County judge today will decide whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has the authority to prevent local officials from imposing public health measures like mask mandates. It’s the latest in a dramatic and fast-moving court battle over the issue in the state.

At today’s hearing, the judge will likely hear evidence and testimony about the pandemic’s impact and the efficacy of mask-wearing to stop the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant as well as legal arguments about the Texas Disaster Act.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and his legal team, who are requesting a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order, say mask-wearing is the best way to save lives and slow the pandemic while they wait for people to get the vaccine. They’ll also argue that Jenkins, the county’s chief administrator who has emergency management powers, has the legal authority to issue executive orders to mandate such rules.

“We need protection for citizens in Dallas County, we need protection for the economy of Dallas County,” Charla Aldous, one of Jenkins’ attorneys, said at the hearing Tuesday morning. “The bottom line: We are here because Judge Jenkins wants to do his job.”

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton say the governor’s executive order, GA-38 — which bans mask mandates — is legal because the Texas Disaster Act gives him the power to ban Jenkins and other local officials like school districts from requiring masks.

Benjamin Dower, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said the state would produce no witnesses and that the testimony from Jenkins’ witnesses weren’t relevant to temporary injunction hearing.

“None of this is actually relevant to the matter the court has to decide,” Dower said. “This is really a question of law, not fact.”

Judge Tonya Parker, of the 116th Civil District Court, will decide today whether to grant a temporary injunction barring the governor’s order. She previously granted a temporary restraining order doing just that.

The restraining order hearing was to prove whether there would be harm if Abbott’s ban were enforced. The temporary injunction hearing scheduled for this morning is to decide whether the decision should be more permanent. The judge will hear evidence on the matter, but Jenkins’ legal team must still prove immediate harm from Abbott’s order.

See here and here for some background; yes, all of this litigation is hard to keep track of. This post is likely to be already out of date by the time it publishes in the morning. I’ll update it then. Hold onto your butts in the meantime.

UPDATE: No news on the Dallas case yet. Maybe by this time tomorrow.

The status of the mask mandate lawsuits

The Chron does a roundup.

Texas courtrooms have become a busy place this August, with Attorney General Ken Paxton battling school districts, cities, counties and nonprofits to defend Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Tracking the status of lawsuits can be dizzying.

“The way I like to think about it is there are four big buckets of cases and then there are some little minor cases out there,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, whose county has sued both Paxton and Abbott over the ban on mask orders.

Those buckets include Harris County’s lawsuit; one brought by a group of school districts; one from Bexar County and San Antonio; and one from Dallas County. Those cases are the furthest along in the legal process, Menefee said, and he expects a final decision on Abbott’s mask order rules to come from one of those cases.

Harris County’s lawsuit and the school districts’ are proceeding along the same track, Menefee said. Local officials cheered a ruling late Thursday by the state Supreme Court, on a procedural question, that allowed the county’s mask mandate to stay in place for now.

The all-Republican high court could have ruled on the merits of the question, but chose not to, instead punting it to a lower court. This signals that the court isn’t yet prepared to offer a final decision on whether or not mask mandates across the state will be allowed to remain in place, he said.

“They could rule whenever. The fact that they haven’t issued a ruling I think is encouraging because I think that means they’re thinking about it,” Menefee said. “If they do that, that’s going to be the law of the land for Texas,” applying to all cases.

[…]

In Bexar County and San Antonio’s case, local officials won a temporary injunction from an appeal, allowing their mask mandates to remain in place while their case is pending. A trial is scheduled for December. Paxton’s office is likely to appeal that to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Dallas County is fighting for a temporary restraining order to allow it to keep the mask mandate in place for the short term, a step that precedes arguments over a temporary injunction. That decision would last longer, months rather than weeks.

The stragglers, as Menefee described them, include a Fort Bend County case and a lawsuit from the Southern Center for Child Advocacy over many of the same issues.

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county a temporary injunction it its legal challenge to Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. County Judge KP George said it “removed the hurdles that have prevented our municipalities and school districts from taking the same action to protect their communities and the children…”

Thursday’s ruling should remain in place until the issue goes to trial in at least 45 days. Or Paxton could appeal the lower court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, as he has others, leaving it up to them to decide.

Hope that helps a little. And as a reminder of the legal questions, Erica Greider talks to an expert.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School at Law, reckons that local officials still face an uphill battle in their legal battles.

The Supreme Court of Texas, he explained, didn’t side against the state on the substantive question. It simply concluded that Paxton had skipped a step in the legal process, meaning that the statewide restraining order against Abbott’s executive order remains in effect while Paxton retraces his steps.

The TEA guidance on masks, similarly, isn’t a policy change on the agency’s part; rather, it’s a recognition that a temporary restraining order issued by Travis County District Judge Jan Soife blocking the enforcement of Abbott’s latest executive order remains in effect, while litigation is pending.

“The real bottom line is that Judge Soifer’s TROs are still in effect today, but they may not be tomorrow,” Vladeck said.

Vladeck thinks it’s more likely than not that the state’s highest court will eventually side with Abbott; after all, he noted, it previously issued stays against local mask mandates issued in Dallas and Bexar County — that’s “more than nothing, when it comes to reading tea leaves.”

At the heart of the case, Vladeck continued, are genuine substantive questions about the scope of the governor’s powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

“I think we can safely say they’re broad,” Vladeck said. “The problem is they’re surely not limitless.”

Judge Soifer, you may recall, ruled in both the Harris County case and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy case. As we have seen, there is a range of opinion on this litigation from the legal community. I tend to think Vladeck is right about what will happen – however subtle some of the legal questions are, there’s also the politics of it, and the Supreme Court is much more likely to give Greg Abbott what he wants than not – but it’s not an obvious question to answer. We should know more pretty quickly.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

This was for the Harris County litigation, which included Austin and several South Texas school districts. As such, Harris County’s mask mandate is still in effect. This is a procedural ruling, just telling Ken Paxton he needs to follow the law and go through the appellate courts first, and as such it buys some time. Given how accommodating SCOTx has generally been, it’s nice that they’re not fast-tracking any of this. I doubt it makes much difference in the end, but it matters now.

By the way, if you heard that Greg Abbott was dropping enforcement of school mask mandate bans, that simply isn’t so. Abbott and Paxton can go via the appellate courts as before and as they should have here, and the case will eventually make its way back to SCOTx, where they will likely give the state what it wants. Everything is temporary and in a state of flux right now.

Speaking of the appellate courts:

After Gov. Greg Abbott appealed a temporary order that allowed for mask mandates in schools and city- and county-owned buildings, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the order still stands.

On Monday, Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction, allowing the mask mandates in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools to continue until a trial is held. The city and county sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to issue mask mandates.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district court’s ruling on behalf of Abbott, arguing that his appeal automatically blocked the San Antonio and Bexar County mask mandate. While city attorneys disagreed, they still asked the 4th Court of Appeals on Tuesday to officially uphold the temporary injunction.

In an order issued Thursday, the 4th Court of Appeals reasoned that allowing local governments to have policies to protect public health maintained the status quo, while Abbott actually changed it with his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from mandating masks.

The court also cited testimony given during the Monday hearing from Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh. Both said that requiring masks will help slow the spread of the delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains. They also pointed to the vulnerability of schoolchildren under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“Based on the temporary injunction order and the evidence attached to the emergency motion, the City and County have demonstrated that reinstating the trial court’s temporary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm and preserve their rights during the pendency of this accelerated appeal,” the appellate judges wrote. “The circumstances of this case are unique and, quite frankly, unprecedented.”

See here for the background. This ruling means that the Bexar County mandate can remain in place until the hearing for the temporary injunction, which will be December 13. Except, of course, that Abbott and Paxton can appeal this ruling to SCOTx, and having gone through the proper channels this time, the same reason to reject the other TRO will not be in effect. Expect this to get a ruling from SCOTx in the next couple of days.

In the meantime:

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county’s application for a temporary injunction, siding with local officials in their fight against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Judge J. Christian Becerra of the 434th District Court approved the county’s application for the temporary injunction following a day’s worth of testimony in his courtroom.

The Fort Bend County public health director and a local hospital administrator testified to the healthcare emergency currently facing the Southeast Texas region. Both said they believe mask mandates would help mitigate the spread.

Fort Bend ISD had not gone along with implementing a mask mandate initially. This may change that, we’ll see. This was a late-breaking story, there will be more details to come.

And finally, just to show that you can’t keep Ken Paxton down:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday after its superintendent said he’ll require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before an October 15 deadline.

The suit, filed in Bexar County District Court and shared by Courthouse News Service, argues that a July 29 order by Gov. Greg Abbott bars any public entity in the state from mandating that people take the vaccine. That order supersedes SAISD’s ability to require inoculations of its staff, the state claims.

“Defendants challenge the policy choices made by the state’s commander in chief during times of disaster,” according to the petition.

SAISD is believed to be the first large Texas school district to make vaccines mandatory. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s demand comes during a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases as children too young to be vaccinated head back for a new school year.

“For us, it is about safety and stability in our classrooms,” Martinez told the Express-News this week. “We cannot afford to have threats to those two goals.”

Martinez also told the daily that the legal implications of his order weren’t a consideration.

A mask mandate is one thing, a vaccine mandate is another, at least in terms of waving a red flag in front of Abbott and Paxton. I expect Paxton to prevail, though we’ll see if he gets his restraining order from the district court judge or if he has to go up the ladder.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about that SCOTx refusal to put a stay on the Travis County judge’s rulings, and here’s the Chron story. There’s so much damn news these days I just go with what’s in front of me when I’m ready to start writing, and circle back as needed.

Using the dress code to skirt the ban on mask mandates

Brilliant!

The Paris school district found a loophole in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order preventing mask mandates across the state.

Paris ISD’s board of trustees voted to alter the district’s dress code to include masks, according to its website.

The school district, which is located about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, has nearly 4,000 students across eight campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” Paris ISD said in a release posted on its website. “Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”

[…]

“The Board of Trustees is concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees,” the Paris ISD release says. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees.”

Pretty damn clever, if you ask me. I’m sure Ken Paxton will file a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court to stop them, and who knows what happens after that, but I hope other school districts are looking at this and thinking about it. By the way, Paris TX is in Lamar County, which voted about 80% for Trump in 2020. Not exactly a big liberal city taking this action here, is what I’m saying.

And sigh speaking of Paxton:

Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday to overrule a Travis County judge who over the weekend allowed mask mandates to proceed in any school district in the state.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.”

[…]

“The ongoing disregard of the law by certain local officials is causing mass confusion in Texas, necessitating intervention by this Court to provide clarity and statewide uniformity,” Paxton’s office wrote to Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

Abbott and Paxton have had some legal victories — albeit short-lived ones. The high court sided with Abbott and Paxton on Sunday and temporarily shut down mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. But the court allowed legal challenges to continue playing out.

If I’m reading this correctly, this filing goes after both the Harris County temporary restraining order and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy TRO, both of which were handed down by Judge Soifer. As the story notes, while SCOTx has obliged the request to stay the TROs, it has not as yet put a halt to any of the lawsuits that have been filed, which Paxton has been asking for. As such, with one exception in Fort Worth no school district that has put forth a mask mandate has been barred from doing so, at least so far.

In the meantime, school districts are doing what they can do to keep the kids safe, which means keeping masks on.

Houston ISD is among those taking a hardline approach to enforcing their mask mandates, with threats of being sent home and disciplinary action for students who refuse to cover their faces. Other districts said they have no such plans and are hopeful that all students and staff members will abide by the face covering requirement without stirring up drama.

Keyhla Calderon-Lugo, a spokeswoman for Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, said the only students who showed up on campus without masks on Monday, the first day of school, did so by accident.

“We have surveyed our parents and have been in continuous communication with them,” Calderon-Lugo said. “For us, our community has been cooperating greatly with the guidelines and safety protocols established by the district.”

\Many school administrators think mask-reluctant children may just need a nudge. Almost across the board, districts with mandates in place have provided schools with extra masks and instructed staff to offer them to students who show up on campus without a face covering.

“We’re assuming that they didn’t have one, not that they don’t want to wear one,” said Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD. “Our hope is that we keep students in class. Our goal is not to send them home. We’ve worked really hard to get all 67,000 of our students back to in-person learning.”

Where school districts diverge is when students refuse to wear masks after being offered one.

North of Austin, Pflugerville ISD is “certainly not denying any student access to school,” said spokeswoman Tamra Spence, who added that she was “not aware of any specific instances where a resolution hasn’t been reached” with children who have arrived unmasked since classes resumed Monday.

Some districts say they will segregate the unmasked students from those with masks.

At Houston ISD schools, students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Those who continue to refuse will be told to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning, according to district guidance.

Dallas ISD, meanwhile, is working with its schools to provide separate rooms where students who decline to follow the mask mandate will continue to receive instruction, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said Sunday. He described Dallas ISD’s approach to enforcing its mask requirement as “nice but firm,” and noted that the district had not had any problems since its mandate took effect Aug. 10.

“We’re going to be benevolent. We’re going to work with people. We’re going to offer masks,” Hinojosa said. “But we’re going to be firm. We have to protect the health and safety of our students.”

This could all be a lot simpler, and we could genuinely be doing our best to keep kids and teachers and staffers safe, if Greg Abbott would allow it. He is the reason for the confusion, and he deserves all of the defiance he is getting.

There actually is still a court order that allows for mask mandates in place

Hey, remember that other lawsuit filed against Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy? I noted it in passing in this post, and then like you I forgot about it. And then on Sunday afternoon, this happened:

As of Monday morning, I had not seen any news coverage of this. As discussed before, that Supreme Court ruling only applied to Dallas and Bexar counties, and the affected school districts in those counties appeared to be interpreting it in a way that said it didn’t apply to them. Other jurisdictions like Harris County and Austin were not covered, so their mandates were also not affected.

Later in the day, there was this story:

After the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, several Dallas County school districts started backtracking, making masks optional once again, though Dallas ISD held firm.

But that same evening, a Travis County judge granted a new restraining order that temporarily blocks Gov. Greg Abbott from prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

The restraining order was granted in a case involving The Southern Center for Child Advocacy. Officials from the center did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday but noted on the group’s Facebook page that the restraining order — issued by Judge Jan Soifer in the 345th Judicial District — was in effect statewide.

“It was not one of the TROs blocked by the Texas Supreme Court yesterday afternoon,” the group wrote.

Richardson [ISD] Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the order allowed her district to keep a mask mandate in place as the school year is set to start on Tuesday.

“This ruling, at least temporarily, puts this decision where it should be — at the local level,” Stone said in a video announcement. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Stone said Richardson is committed to following the law and would adapt its decision making if the law changes.

The restraining order essentially allows individual districts the leeway to set their own mandates independent from their counties. Officials with the attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court of Texas to block this order as well. The Texas Supreme Court did not grant the attorney general’s request on Monday for an immediate block based on the day before’s decision.

Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote to the Southern Center for Child Advocacy on Monday, asking the group to acknowledge on Monday that their temporary restraining order is “void and of no effect” because of the Texas Supreme Court decision.

Henry Green Bostwick II, an attorney representing the center, countered that he would withdraw the lawsuit against the state if Gov. Abbott altered his order to allow school districts to enforce mask mandates.

Paxton has vowed to take all school districts that violate Abbott’s mask mandate ban to court. Paxton falsely claimed Sunday evening that the Supreme Court’s decision ordered Dallas County and Dallas ISD to follow the governor’s order.

However, the decision did not mention Dallas ISD. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment on whether the attorney general planned to sue DISD over its mask requirement.

“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.

[…]

Other school districts are signaling their intentions to jump into the legal fray, too.

DeSoto ISD trustees are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss authorizing their legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Abbott in order to allow the districts “to make local decisions regarding the health and safety of its students and employees,” according to the board’s agenda. Arlington ISD is expected to take up a similar vote later this week.

So, safe to say that for now, as of Monday afternoon, school districts that wanted to keep a mask mandate in place could do so. And then there’s this:

Here’s the DMN story if you can read it. Again I ask: Who is actually bound by that Supreme Court order? Far as I can tell, no one is paying it any heed, and now there’s the second court order that would seem to invalidate it, or at least contradict it. I can’t see this as anything but a temporary situation, and yet here we are. Until something else happens, it’s what the counties and school districts are saying that is in effect. I for one prefer it that way.

Bexar County mask mandate back on

And in an update to the original mask mandate lawsuit story, the district court that issues the temporary restraining order that was later stayed by the Supreme Court has now issued a temporary injunction, barring the state from forbidding San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks. Confused? Keep reading.

Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.

“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”

The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.

Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.

In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed … and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community relay on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.

The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.

“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”

See here for the previous report, which noted that the plaintiffs had not exactly been eager to comply with the SCOTx ruling in the first place. This is all separate from the other lawsuit that resulted in a statewide restraining order on Sunday night. As I, a noted non-lawyer, understand it, the purpose of the initial restraining order that was granted was to address claims by the plaintiffs that they are suffering harm right now as a result of the thing they’re suing over – the TRO is to mitigate that harm until there’s an evidentiary hearing. That TRO is what was lifted by SCOTx, who said in effect that any such harm was either insignificant or irrelevant, and no mitigation needed to be in place at this time. The purpose of the injunction is to say that the plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to suggest that they will prevail on the merits, and thus they can get what they are asking for until a final ruling is made. This too can and surely will be appealed, and I would be surprised if it is not stayed, but as before until such time the plaintiffs have gotten what they wanted.

The San Antonio Report adds on.

Arteaga said that like her decision to grant a temporary restraining order last week, the choice to grant a temporary injunction was not made lightly. She acknowledged the testimony of Bexar County resident Michelle Means, who told the court Monday that she did not want to send her youngest child to school with a face mask and was disappointed by the sudden mask mandate issued last week.

“I just wanted to apologize to all those parents, school administrators, the superheroes that we call teachers, for what someone called the equivalent to a legal tug-of-war,” Arteaga said. “Unfortunately, … our children are right in the middle.”

Arteaga’s ruling on Monday is only a temporary extension; the mask mandate will not be permanently in place until the case goes to trial. Once appealed, the 4th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court would also have to rule in the city and county’s favor.

[…]

The city and county must now set a trial date with the state over a permanent injunction.

Arteaga heard from five witnesses during a hearing Monday, with four testifying on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County and one for the state. During the hearing, local officials testified about rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and said the need to require masks in schools was urgent as more of them opened their doors to students.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, making them more vulnerable, said Dr. Junda Woo, who testified in her capacity as the public health authority for San Antonio and Bexar County. She also serves as the medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Though children generally have better health outcomes if they contract the virus, they can still bring it home to older, more vulnerable adults.

“People are out and about more and we have a large number of people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “And the delta variant is more contagious than the earlier version of COVID, where every person who had COVID will infect one or two people. With the delta variant, every person infects eight to nine people.”

Woo also cited rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the area. Those increases are now accompanied by smaller staff numbers at area hospitals compared to previous surges, Woo said.

“As a physician, I really worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “The level of burnout, of anger that I see among health care providers who I have known for years, is at levels I have never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

We’ll see how long it takes for this to get back before SCOTx, and how long it takes them to give Greg Abbott everything he wants. In case you’re wondering, the temporary injunction hearing for the Dallas lawsuit is August 24, so depending on where we are it’s possible we’ll go through this again in that court.

The Trib reports that the general reaction so far to all this is confusion and a mess of differing local actions.

Colleges in Travis County must require masks — but not two hours south in Bexar County. There, officials decided to keep the mandate just to K-12 — a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.

“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

[…]

Amid the legal disarray, many school districts have walked back plans to require masks.

​​Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio imposed a mask order after Bexar County officials convinced a judge to pause Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. But after Sunday’s Supreme Court ruling, the district scuttled its plans.

The same goes for Fort Bend ISD — another district that was set to require masks, but changed course in defiance of Fort Bend County Judge KP George’s mask order for the county, which includes public schools.

Some districts aren’t waiting for the state to challenge local mask orders to reverse course. In Travis County, Eanes Independent School District pulled back its mask mandate after the state Supreme Court decision — even though the decision didn’t apply to Travis County and the county mask mandate remains in effect.

“We will follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match,” the school district posted on Twitter.

Others have stuck with their mandates through the chaos. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio ISDs will continue to require masks despite the Supreme Court order.

In parts of the state where masking orders remain untouched by the legal crossfire, officials are weighing the possibility of expanding the mandate beyond schools and colleges.

Plenty of businesses in Austin have adopted their own masking requirements without a local mandate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. But he hasn’t ruled out mandating masks for private businesses if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals continues to rise — though Adler doesn’t relish the idea.

“We’re all just trying to keep people safe and to keep the economy open,” he said.

It’s a mess, it’s Greg Abbott’s fault, and there should be more resistance to his nonsense. Thank you for attending my TED talk.

And in the meantime, a new player has entered the fight.

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said he would allow exceptions to the mandate, which he plans to make effective Wednesday morning, but did not specify them. He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

[…]

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

“Tonight” was Monday night – as far as I could tell late Monday there were no news stories confirming that such a suit had been filed. I’ll keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

UPDATE: The latest version of the Yallitics podcast does a nice job explaining all the legal mumbo jumbo, in case you still need some help understanding it all.

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Texas.

The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties across the state defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates. On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools. Shortly after, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins that required masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.

Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.

“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.

See here and here for the background. Abbott’s tweet is pathetic in its misrepresentation of the issue. Masking only works if the people who are sick – whether they know it or not – are in compliance. That means that the people who are most likely to be sick – unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, which is all children under the age of 12 – especially need to be masked, and as we very well know, that first group and their children are not ever going to do that voluntarily. My mask doesn’t protect me from you (unless I’m wearing an N-95), it protects you from me. If you’re not reciprocating, it’s not doing us any good. The problem with Greg Abbott is not that he doesn’t understand this, it’s that he values the opinion of the largely unvaccinated and completely indifferent Republican primary voters more than anything else. And so here we are.

As for Paxton, he’s wrong in two ways. First:

And second:

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown last week required face coverings to be worn inside public schools and government buildings to deal with a surge in local COVID-19 infections. Both insisted the orders remained in effect because Sunday’s court action did not involve local rules.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

[…]

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

The Chron story makes the same point. To be sure, Paxton can pursue the same kind of writ against Harris and Austin and those other school districts – several others that have as far as I know not been involved in litigation yet have implemented mask mandates – and when SCOTx issues a final ruling it can and likely will encompass all of the other jurisdictions in its order. But until then, no one other than Dallas and Bexar Counties are directly affected. And for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me what would happen if they just decide to tell Abbott and Paxton and SCOTx to go pound sand. They haven’t yet, and they may never, but don’t throw out the possibility. The San Antonio Report has more.

UPDATE: Interesting:

I mean, he’s not wrong. And this is what I’m saying about the state’s ability to enforce this. As above, Paxton could go after DISD and make them comply. But until and unless he does, what’s stopping them from continuing on as they had planned?

UPDATE: This too:

At this point it’s not clear to me that anyone truly feels bound by this SCOTx order.

And it’s off to SCOTx for the mandate stuff

It’s where it was always headed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is taking the mask mandate battle to the state Supreme Court after the state was defeated in its attempts to overturn such mandates in San Antonio and other municipalities.

Paxton made the announcement late Friday night in a tweet that read, “We have taken this mask mandate to the Texas Supreme Court. The Rule of Law will decide. — AGPaxton.”

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Court of Appeals denied Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to overturn a temporary restraining order granted Tuesday that blocked Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and allowed the city to order masks in schools and government buildings.

“After considering the petition and the motion, this court concludes (the state) is not entitled to the relief sought,” Justices Luz Elena Chapa, Irene Rios and Beth Watkins wrote in their Friday ruling.

That same day, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas also denied the state’s bid to overturn a mask order by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. And in Travis County, a judge granted similar restraining orders against Abbott to Harris County and the South Texas school districts of Brownsville, La Joya and Edinburg, allowing them to keep mask mandates in place.

See here for some background, and here for a story about the Dallas appellate verdict. As far as I can tell, this hearing will review both of those rulings, and thus will obviously affect the other litigation going on. To that end, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has submitted an amicus brief in support of Dallas and Bexar. I have no particular reason to believe that the Supreme Court will do anything other than offer the usual room service to the state, but I have to hope, because what else is there to do? I assume we will know shortly what they think. KXAN and the Trib have more.

Harris County gets its restraining order against Abbott

Step one.

A judge in Travis County on Friday granted Harris County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision by Judge Jan Soifer of the 345th Civil District Court provides legal cover for the county health department, which Thursday issued a mask mandate for schools and day care centers at the direction of County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“While this decision is temporary, it’s a victory for residents in Harris County who are concerned about this public health crisis,” County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “We need every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of COVID-19, including masks and other measures that are proven to slow the spread.”

A handful of area school districts, including the Houston, Spring, Aldine, Galena Park and Galveston Independent School Districts, have issued mask mandates. Others said they were waiting to see how the legal battles between the state and local officials are resolved.

[…]

[Harris County Judge Lina] Hidalgo on Aug. 5 moved the county to its highest pandemic threat level, which urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. She said masks are particularly important in schools because children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, which health officials agree is the best defense against COVID-19.

Harris County’s order also requires schools to notify parents when a student comes into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus; the Texas Education Agency advises but does not mandate this.

“At this point, public health interventions like masking, contact tracing and notifications in schools remain (children’s) only protection against the virus,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents Tuesday.

In his lawsuit, Menefee said the governor had exceeded the authority given to him by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which, he argued, allows Abbott to suspend laws only in certain circumstances.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was also named in the suit, are almost certain to appeal. The pair pledged in a joint statement Wednesday to sue any “school district, public university or local government official” who violates the governor’s executive order.

Randall Erben, a professor of the University of Texas School of Law, said Abbott has broad powers under the Disaster Act. This situation is unique, said Southern Methodist University law professor Nathan Cortez, because the governor is attempting to limit, rather than enhance, the government’s response to a disaster.

See here for the background, and here for a story about what other area ISDs are doing. I can’t blame any of them for waiting to see how the litigation winds up before changing course, though I would strongly encourage them to be as forcefully on the side of protecting their students and teachers and staff as much as possible.

As noted before, Abbott and Paxton are now appealing the lower court orders that allowed for the mask mandates to go forward for now. So far that isn’t going well for them, either, though that comes with an asterisk:

Yeah, we know that’s where this is going, and there’s no particular reason to be optimistic. It should also be noted that a district court judge in Tarrant County issued a TRO blocking the Fort Worth ISD’s mask mandate in response to a suit filed by some parents. That was a Republican judge, though there was more to the case than just the executive order. It’s not hard to see the partisan split, though. Still, every loss Greg Abbott suffers, even if transitory, is worth it.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

Fort Bend joins the lawsuit parade

Come on in, the water’s fine.

As the Delta variant drives a pandemic surge, Fort Bend County officials on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government from implementing public health mandates.

“I’ll do all I can to protect the public health, and the people of Fort Bend County,” Judge KP George tweeted. “I hope others will join me in following the science and listening to local doctors and the CDC to act swiftly and decisively.”

The county filed a lawsuit in district court requesting a temporary restraining order to challenge the Republican governor’s order. George, a Democrat, and other county leaders had scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon.

County commissioners met in a closed special session at 3 p.m. Wednesday to deliberate with an attorney and discuss potential responses to rising COVID-19 infections, according to the meeting agenda.

The story has no further detail, so I will just assume this is along similar lines as the others so far.

We now have our first official response from the powers that be, and as one might expect, it’s arrogant and jerky.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he plans to appeal a pair of rulings by judges in Dallas and San Antonio that allow local officials in those cities to issue mask mandates, with possible decisions from the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the week.

The temporary rulings override Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that bars local officials from requiring face coverings. They came in response to legal challenges from top elected officials in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, who argued Abbott overstepped his emergency powers by preventing the local mandates. The rulings also pointed to a rapid ongoing rise in COVID hospitalizations across the state, particularly in large cities.

Paxton said Wednesday he expects a quick ruling in his favor from the state’s top civil court.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the week or at least early next week we’ll have a response from the Texas Supreme Court,” Paxton told conservative radio host Dana Loesch. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m pretty confident we’re going to win that.”

[…]

Paxton argued on the talk show Wednesday that the Texas Legislature had granted Abbott the power to ban local COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, through the sweeping Texas Disaster Act of 1975. He also downplayed the early court win by Jenkins.

“The reality is, he’s going to lose,” Paxton said. “He may get a liberal judge in Dallas County to rule in his favor, but ultimately I think we have a Texas Supreme Court that will follow the law. They have in the past.”

We’ll see about that. For what it’s worth, there was one Republican district court judge in Fort Bend who wasn’t challenged in 2018, so there’s at least a chance that he could preside over this case. The crux of the argument here is that it’s Greg Abbott who isn’t following the law. I agree with Paxton that the Supreme Court is going to be very inclined to see it Abbott’s way, but I’d like to think they’ll at least take the plaintiffs’ arguments into account.

Later in the day, we got the first words from Abbott as well.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Yeah, that’s what has gotten us to this situation in the first place. I will confess that I’m surprised it has taken this long for Abbott to speak up. He’s never been shy about quashing dissent, and as this story notes the right wing scream machine has been fulminating about his lack of action. Those days are clearly now over.

We got another peek at the state’s response in this story about the larger revolt by cities and school districts against Abbott’s mask mandate ban.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before state District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a city attorney argued that Abbott had exceeded the bounds of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which the governor cited in suspending local authority to impose COVID restrictions.

“The Texas Legislature has given cities and counties broad authority within the Texas Health and Safety Act,” said Assistant City Attorney Bill Christian. “Only the Legislature has the authority to suspend laws.”

Kimberly Gdula, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an appellate court ruling last November that upheld Abbott’s ban on local business restrictions. She also argued that the city and county were asking the court to improperly “throw out” parts of the Disaster Act.

Interesting, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. When there are some actual opinions and not just temporary restraining orders pending the injunction hearings, we’ll know more.

It’s possible there may be another avenue to explore in all this.

President Joe Biden says the White House is “checking” on whether he has the power to intervene in states like Texas where Republican leaders have banned mask mandates.

Asked whether he has the power to step in, Biden responded: “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

“I think that people should understand, seeing little kids — I mean, four, five, six years old — in hospitals, on ventilators, and some of them passing — not many, but some of them passing — it’s almost, I mean, it’s just — well, I should not characterize beyond that,” Biden said.

[…]

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is “looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs.” She said those include efforts to “keep students safe and keep students in school” and that the U.S. Department of Education “and others” are working on it.

Insert shrug emoji here. I don’t know what this might look like, but I believe they will be creative in looking for a possible point of leverage.

Finally, on a side note, Fort Worth ISD implemented a mask mandate on Tuesday. We are still waiting for HISD to vote on the request by Superintendent Millard House to implement one for our district. The Board meeting is today, I expect this to be done with little fuss from the trustees.

More lawsuits against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates

From Dallas County:

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins filed a legal challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates Monday, the North Texas official said on Twitter.

Jenkins said he’s asking for a court to rule that Abbott’s prohibition on local officials requiring people to wear masks — part of the governor’s July 29 executive order regarding the pandemic — is unenforceable.

Jenkins filed his request as part of an ongoing lawsuit between himself and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, according to The Dallas Morning News. That paper, which first obtained a copy of the court filing, reported that Jenkins is asking to be allowed to require mask wearing.

[…]

“The enemy is the virus and we must all do all that we can to protect public health,” Jenkins said in a tweet late Monday. “School districts and government closest to the people should make decisions on how best to keep students and others safe.”

Koch sued Jenkins Thursday after the county judge ordered the commissioner to be removed from a public meeting where Jenkins mandated mask wearing, according to The News.

This joins the lawsuit filed in Travis County seeking a broader injunction against Abbott’s anti-mask order. Commissioner Koch was denied a temporary restraining order in his action against Judge Jenkins on the ground that being made to wear a mask did not cause him any injury; a hearing for an injunction is still to come. One can only hope it’s that easy for Jenkins in this litigation. The legal hair that is being split here, as far as my not-lawyer self can tell, is that while Abbott clearly has the power to impose a mask mandate during an emergency, the statute does not allow him to forbid other entities from imposing their own mandates. WFAA appears to confirm my guesses.

The court document cites the Disaster Act, which delegates authority to county judges to declare local disasters and to seek to mitigate the disaster. It says that the Delta variant is increasingly affecting the city.

It also mentions how Jenkins tried to require face masks in commissioners’ court but there were threats from Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Last week, Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch was escorted out of the commissioner’s meeting after refusing to wear a face mask.

“Such injunctive relief is necessary because there is immediate and irreparable harm that will befall Dallas County – and others outside Dallas County – if they cannot require the public health-advancing mitigation measure of mandatory face coverings in public,” the court document says.

It also says that Abbott is attempting to prevent Jenkins from protecting citizens, which threatens lives.

“The Disaster Act does not provide any authority to the Governor to limit the local county judge’s actions,” the document says.

I figure there should be a quick ruling on whether there can be a temporary restraining order or not, and after that we’ll see. I don’t know the text of the statute in question, and I don’t know if coming from a county, which is essentially a subsidiary of the state, versus a home-rule city or school district or third party makes a difference.

In the meantime, Bexar County and San Antonio joined in the fun.

The city and county joined other governmental entities Tuesday in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order prohibiting them from issuing mask mandates. This is not the first lawsuit over Abbott’s order; Dallas County sued on Monday night. Dallas Independent School District and Austin Independent School District also announced Monday that they would be requiring masks in schools despite Abbott’s executive order.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that the lawsuit was to challenge Abbott’s authority to suspend local emergency orders during the pandemic. Find a copy of the lawsuit here.

“Ironically, the governor is taking a state law meant to facilitate local action during an emergency and using it to prohibit local response to the emergency that he himself declared,” he said in a news release.

A temporary restraining order is necessary as San Antonio and Bexar County face “imminent irreparable harm,” from transmission of the coronavirus, plaintiffs wrote.

If the city and county are able to secure a temporary restraining order against the governor, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District intends to immediately require masks in public schools and unvaccinated students to quarantine if they come in “close contact” with someone that tested positive for COVID-19.

[…]

The city and county argued in its filing that Abbott exceeded his authority, as Texas law “gives the governor authority to suspend statutes and regulations governing state officials and agencies, but not the statutes giving local governments the authority to manage public health within their own jurisdictions,” city and county representatives wrote in the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff reiterated that point during a county commissioners meeting Tuesday morning.

And just like that

A Texas district judge granted the city of San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s restriction on localities imposing mask mandates.

On Tuesday, Judge Antonia Arteaga made the ruling following almost an hour of arguments from attorneys. Arteaga said she did not take her decision lightly, citing the start of the school year and public guidance given by Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District, concerning the need for masks in public schools as the highly contagious delta variant contributes to a surge in coronavirus cases across the state.

The decision is temporary, pending a hearing on Monday.

We’re a long way from actual victory here – even if the plaintiffs win on Monday, we all know the state will appeal, and who knows what happens from there. The legal argument sounds reasonable to me, but what matters is what the law says, and whether the appeals courts/Supreme Court want to find a way to accommodate Abbott regardless of what the law says. But at least we’re off to a good start.

UPDATE: Score one for Dallas, too.

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

“Universal masking” for school children recommended

Seems like a sensible idea, especially given that children under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine yet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

The AAP, which said its important for children to return to in-person learning this year, recommends that school staff also wear masks. The AAP is calling the new guidance a “layered approach.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

The AAP said universal masking is necessary because much of the student population is not vaccinated, and it’s hard for schools to determine who is as new variants emerge that might spread more easily among children.

Children 12 and over are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. And the FDA said last week that emergency authorization for vaccines for children under 12 could come in early to midwinter.

[…]

Universal masking will also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses that could keep kids out of school, the AAP said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC that the CDC may have been trying to be a little more lenient, allowing people to make judgment calls “depending on the circumstances in your school and your community.”

But he said he understands where the AAP is coming from.

“They will not be popular amongst parents and kids who are sick of masks, but you know what? The virus doesn’t care that we’re sick of masks,” Collins said. “The virus is having another version of its wonderful party for itself. And to the degree that we can squash that by doing something that maybe is a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenient … if it looks like it’s going to help, put the mask back on for a while.”

That was from last week. Yesterday, the CDC caught up.

To prevent further spread of the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of Covid-19, which includes nearly two-thirds of all US counties.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a media briefing on Tuesday.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” she said. “This is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the CDC’s Covid-19 school guidance noted that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, and then about a week later the American Academy of Pediatrics issued stricter guidance recommending that everyone older than 2 wear a mask in schools, regardless of vaccination their status.

Now the updated CDC guidance recommends everyone in schools wear masks.

“CDC recommends that everyone in K through 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” Walensky said. “Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission. With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever.”

The updated CDC guidance makes “excellent sense,” Dr. David Weber, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and board member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology, told CNN on Tuesday.

“Breakthrough disease clearly occurs, and for those cases, we know they’re much more mild in vaccinated people, but we don’t know how infectious vaccinated people are,” he said. “But clearly, if you want to protect your children under 12 or grandchildren, or protect immunocompromised people, as well as protect your own health — from even mild disease — then you should be wearing a mask, particularly in areas of high transmission when indoors.”

My kids have been vaccinated, but they’re still regular mask-wearers, especially the younger one. I fully expect them to continue to do so in school, at least for the fall. I’ve been wearing a mask again for indoor spaces as well. I will admit it’s kind of annoying, as we have been vaccinated for months now and have been pretty damn careful all along, but it is what it is. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for this position:

Some of that is happening in other states, but who knows, maybe we’ll get it for federal buildings and air travel, too. And who knows, maybe this will work.

As leaders in other parts of the country require government employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, San Antonio and Bexar County are considering following suit, the Express-News reports.

Such a step would come as vaccination rates plateau and the highly contagious delta variant leads to a rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Texas. California and New York City this week said they will make employees get the vaccine or submit to weekly coronavirus tests. Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate COVID vaccinations for frontline staff.

“We are supportive of the efforts of New York and California,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a joint statement supplied to Express-News. “We will be reviewing the legalities and practicalities of requiring a COVID-19 vaccine and/or weekly testing in conformity with CDC guidelines in order to protect the health and well-being of city/county workforce.”

A city and county vaccine mandate would apply to roughly 18,000 workers, according to the daily, which reports that both Nirenberg and Wolff are unsure whether the requirement would be allowable under state law.

I think we can say with extreme confidence that the state would bring all its fight against such a move. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, but it’s not a move to be made lightly. Be prepared to hire a bunch of expensive lawyers, and have a solid communication strategy in place, that would be my advice.

As for masks in schools, well…

What did you expect? Greg Abbott has already said there won’t be any mask mandate in schools, and it’s impossible to imagine him changing his mind. It’s all up to the parents and school staff. I would not feel safe having my not-yet-vaccinated kids in school without a full-mask situation, which by the way is what we did in this past spring semester. I don’t even know what the argument against is. Doesn’t much matter when the power is on that side. The Trib and Daily Kos have more.

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by county

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts
State House district changes by demography

One more look at how state house districts have changed over the decade. For this exercise, I’m going to look at some key counties and the State Rep districts within them.

Bexar:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
122   -1,304  10,628  12,204  21,091  10,900  31,719  20,819
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
123   -1,427   5,225   3,742   9,272   2,315  14,497  12,182
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485

Bexar County doesn’t get the props it deserves for contributing to the Democratic cause. Each of its ten districts became more Democratic in each of the two Presidential cycles. Where Bexar had gone 51.56% to 47.04% in 2012 for Obama, it went 58.20% to 40.05% for Biden. Obama had a net 23K votes in Bexar, while it was +140K votes for Biden. The two districts that shifted the most heavily towards Dems are the two Republican districts (HD117 went Republican in 2014, then flipped back in 2016), with Biden carrying HD121 as Beto had done in 2018, and HD122 coming into focus as a potential long-term pickup (modulo redistricting, of course). Both HDs 121 and 122 were over 60% for Romney, with HD122 at almost 68% for him. Both can and surely will be shored up in the next round of mapmaking, but the long term trends don’t look good for the Republicans holding them both.

Tarrant:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
092   -1,102   3,986   4,166  13,144   3,064  17,130  14,066
094   -3,344   2,238   2,655  10,231    -689  12,469  13,158
096      821   4,468   6,527  15,522   7,348  19,990  12,642
098     -489   6,891   8,798  13,948   8,309  20,839  12,530
097   -3,267   3,654   6,147  11,472   2,880  15,126  12,246
101     -734   3,487   4,523   9,808   3,789  13,295   9,506
093    2,751   5,180   9,984  15,697  12,735  20,877   8,142
091      401   2,489   5,437   8,897   5,838  11,386   5,548
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
099    2,757   3,282   9,686  11,208  12,443  14,490   2,047

I know everyone sees Tarrant County as a disappointment in 2020. Beto broke through in 2018, we had a bunch of close districts to target, and the Republicans held them all even as Biden also carried Tarrant. The point here is that Democrats made progress in every district, in each cycle (the dip in predominantly Black and heavily Democratic HD95 in 2016 notwithstanding). That includes the strong Republican districts (HDs 91, 98, and 99), the strong D districts (HDs 90, 95, and 101), and the five swing districts. Tarrant will be another challenge for Republicans in redistricting because like in Harris they have mostly lost their deep red reserves. HD98 went from being a 75% Romney district to a 62% Trump district last year. They can spread things out a bit, but remember what happened in Dallas County in the 2010s when they got too aggressive. I’m not saying that’s what will happen in Tarrant, but you can see where the numbers are.

Collin:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
067   -3,022   8,595   6,135  19,411   3,113  28,006  24,893
066   -4,911   8,517   4,001  14,432    -910  22,949  23,859
089    1,038   6,667   9,980  17,338  11,018  24,005  12,987
033    4,656   8,268  18,234  20,233  22,890  28,501   5,611
070    7,648   8,675  21,284  25,686  28,932  34,361   5,429

Denton:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
065   -1,378   6,440   6,048  16,110   4,670  22,550  17,880
106    8,757  11,138  21,190  29,280  29,947  40,418  10,471
064    3,003   6,205   8,257  15,136  11,260  21,341  10,081
063    2,642   6,129  16,382  17,279  19,024  23,408   4,384

I’m grouping these two together because they have a lot in common. Both shifted hugely Democratic over the decade, in each case across all their districts. Both contain a district that was added to their county in the 2011 redistricting. HDs 33 (72-26 for Romney in 2012, 60-38 for Trump in 2020) and 106 (68-31 for Romney in 2012, 54-45 for Trump in 2020) were supposed to be super-red, but didn’t stay that way. I might have thought that the southernmost districts in each county – i.e., the ones closest to Dallas and Tarrant – would be the bluest, but that is not quite the case. HD65 is in southeast Denton, where it is almost entirely adjacent to HD115, but HD63 is the reddest district in Denton (61-37 Trump) and it is the other district on Denton’s south border, though it aligns almost perfectly with HD98, the reddest district in Tarrant. HD64 is the next most Dem district in Denton, and it’s in the northwest quadrant, catty-corner to HD65. I have to assume this is a function of development more than who its closest neighbors are; I’m sure someone who knows Denton better than I can comment on that.

In Collin, HDs 66 and 67 are on the southern end of that county, but so is HD89, where it abuts Rockwall County more than it does Dallas. HD70 is north of 67 and 89, and HD33 (which contains all of Rockwall County) is the outer edge of the county to the west, north, and east, dipping down into Rockwall from there. Both counties continue their massive growth, and I expect them to have at least one more district in them next decade. Republicans have more room to slosh voters around, but as above, the trends are not in their favor.

There are of course other counties that are growing a lot and not in a way that favors Republicans. Here are two more of them.

Williamson:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
136       52  10,901   7,842  22,330   7,894  33,231  25,337
052    2,422   8,335  11,479  22,872  13,901  31,207  17,306
020    7,373   2,895  20,820  14,926  28,193  17,821 -10,372

Fort Bend:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
028    4,053  14,090  19,260  24,010  23,313  38,100  14,787
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
085    2,908   5,495  10,258  10,161  13,166  15,656   2,490

HD20 also includes Milam and Burnet counties, and I suspect that’s where most of the Republican growth is. HD85 also includes Jackson and Wharton counties. The previous version of HD52 had flipped Dem in 2008, the first such incursion into the formerly all-red suburbs, before flipping back in 2010, but neither it (55-42 for Romney) nor the newcomer HD136 (55-41 Romney) were ever all that red. There were some maps drawn in the 2011 redistricting process (not by Republicans, of course) that carved HD26 out as a heavily Asian swing district (it went 63-36 for Romney as drawn), but it just needed time for the “swing” part to happen. Of the various targets from 2018 and 2020, it’s one that I feel got away, and I wish I understood that better.

Brazoria:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
029      496   8,084  10,828  15,387  11,324  23,471  12,147
025    1,759     215   8,293   3,874  10,052   4,089  -5,963

Galveston:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
024    2,403   3,959  13,045   8,928  15,448  12,887  -2,561
023    3,847     346  11,123   7,296  14,970   7,642  -7,328

Montgomery:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
015   -1,563   7,905  13,226  15,512  11,663  23,417  11,754
016    7,437   2,437  16,088   7,160  23,525   9,597 -13,928
003    7,758   1,807  17,456   8,286  25,214  10,093 -15,121

We’ve looked at these counties before, this is just a more fine-grained approach. Note that HD03 includes all of Waller County, HD25 includes all of Matagorda County, and HD23 includes all of Chambers County. HD23 was already Republican in 2012 when Craig Eiland still held it (Romney carried it 54.6 to 44.2) and while it has gotten more so since then (Trump won it 57.5 to 41.0), that has mostly been fueled by the Republican growth in Chambers. I did a quick calculation on the data from the Galveston County election results page, and Biden carried the Galveston part of HD23 by a slim margin, 29,019 to 28,896. (Republican rep Mayes Middleton won that part of the district 29,497 to 27,632, so this tracks.) The rest of Galveston, the northern part that’s all Houston suburb, is much more Republican, but like with these other two counties one can see a path forward from here. What to do about the likes of Chambers County, that’s another question.

HD29 in Brazoria should have been a target in 2018 but the Dem who won the primary dropped out of the race, and there was no traction that I could see there in 2020. I expect that district to get a little redder, but the same story as elsewhere applies in that the geographic trends are a force that won’t be stopped by boundary lines. As for Montgomery, there are your signs of progress right there. HD15 is still very red, but as I’ve said before, the first goal is to bend the curve, and we’re on the right track there. HD15 is basically the Woodlands and Shenandoah, just north of HD150, while HD03 wraps around it and HD16 is the north end of the county.

Lubbock:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
084     -474     873   4,124   6,975   3,650   7,848   4,198
083    3,359     242  12,224   5,141  15,583   5,383 -10,200

Smith:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
006       67     938   6,922   6,208   6,989   7,146     157
005    4,565  -1,293   9,646   2,832  14,211   1,539 -12,672

These two districts, on opposite ends of the state, may seem odd to be paired together, but they have a couple of things in common. Both contain one district that is entirely within its borders (HD06 in Smith, HD84 in Lubbock) and one district that contains the rest of their population plus several smaller neighboring counties (HD05 also contains Wood and Rains counties, while HD83 contains six other counties). Both have a city that is the bulk of of its population (the city of Lubbock has over 90% of the population of Lubbock County, while a bit less than half of Smith County is in the city of Tyler). And both provide a bit of evidence for my oft-stated thesis that these smaller cities in Texas, which are often in otherwise fairly rural and very Republican areas, provide the same kind of growth opportunity for Democrats that the bigger cities have provided.

Both HDs 06 and 84 were less red than Smith and Lubbock counties overall: Smith County was 69-30 for Trump, HD06 was 68-32 for Matt Schaefer; Lubbock County was 65-33 for Trump, and HD84 was 61-39 for John Frullo. I didn’t go into the precinct details to calculate the Trump/Biden numbers in those districts, but given everything we’ve seen I’d say we could add another point or two into the Dem column for each. HD84 shows a clear Democratic trend while HD06 is more of a mixed bag, but it’s still a slight net positive over the decade and a damn sight better than HD05. HD06 is not close to being competitive while HD84 is on the far outer fringes, but that’s not the main point. It’s the potential for Democratic growth, for which we will need every little contribution we can get, that I want to shout from the rooftops. The big cities and big growing suburbs are our top tier, but we’d be fools to ignore the places like Lubbock and Tyler.

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by demography

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts

I return once again to doing cycle-over-cycle comparisons in vote turnout, in this case for State House districts. There are a lot of them, and I’m not going to do them all but I am going to do enough of them that I will split this into two parts. Part One, this post, will group districts by demographic groups. Part Two, to come later, will be to group them by counties of interest.

First up, just to ease ourselves in, are the four big urban districts that are Anglo, wealthy, highly college-educated, and swung hard towards the Democrats since 2012:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
134  -10,943  15,312   6,540  17,771  -4,403  33,083  37,486
047   -2,005  14,218  13,145  27,678  11,140  41,896  30,756
108   -5,942  12,553   8,628  17,929   2,686  30,482  27,796
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573

As discussed before, the columns represent the difference in vote total for the given period and party, so “1216” means 2012 to 2016, “1620” means 2016 to 2020, and “1220” means 2012 to 2020. Each column has a D or an R in it, so “1216R” means the difference between 2016 Donald Trump and 2012 Mitt Romney for the Presidential table, and so forth. In each case, I subtract the earlier year’s total from the later year’s total, so the “-9,951” for SD114 in the “1216R” column means that Donald Trump got 9,951 fewer votes in 2016 in SD14 than Mitt Romney got, and the “56,887” for SD14 in the “1216D” column means that Hillary Clinton got 56,887 more votes than Barack Obama got. “Dem net” at the end just subtracts the “1220R” total from the “1220D” total, which is the total number of votes that Biden netted over Obama. Got it? Good.

Despite the large swings, only the top two are now Dem-held. HD108 managed to remain in the hands of Rep. Morgan Meyer despite being carried by statewide Dems all the way down the ballot, while HD121 still remains somewhat Republican-leaning. I don’t know what magic Republicans have in mind for redistricting, but their hold on these voters is slipping away rapidly. I can’t emphasize enough that Mitt Romney got 60% of the vote in HD134 in 2012, and look at where it is now.

I’ve written plenty about these districts, and I could have included more of them in this table. Most of those you will see later. There’s not much to add except to say that this particular demographic shift has been a huge driver in the overall blue-ing of Texas, and especially of its most populated areas. I don’t know what the future holds, but I don’t see that changing in the near term.

When I mentioned that this post was a look at the districts by demographic groups, I assume your first thought was that I’d take a closer look at Latino districts. Well, here you go:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
051      425  10,783   4,422  19,073   4,847  29,856  25,009
102   -4,430   5,333   2,511  10,832  -1,919  16,165  18,084
148   -1,481   8,555   5,598  10,113   4,117  18,668  14,551
107   -3,023   4,566     718   7,532  -2,305  12,098  14,403
103      -96   7,314   3,535  10,357   3,439  17,671  14,232
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
105   -2,249   4,377   2,900   8,547     651  12,924  12,273
078   -1,129   6,723   6,731   9,618   5,602  16,341  10,739
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
079     -453   7,038   4,976   6,495   4,523  13,533   9,010
075    1,734  11,011   9,747   8,599  11,481  19,610   8,129
104     -777   3,881   2,743   6,042   1,966   9,923   7,957
077   -1,530   5,080   3,539   3,936   2,009   9,016   7,007
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
145   -1,306   5,575   5,291   5,038   3,985  10,613   6,628
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485
076     -260   5,039   3,826   1,635   3,566   6,674   3,108
140     -733   4,433   4,140   1,810   3,407   6,243   2,836
144   -1,051   3,577   4,044   1,480   2,993   5,057   2,064
041    1,664   6,820   8,617   5,201  10,281  12,021   1,740
143   -1,038   3,244   4,483   1,446   3,445   4,690   1,245
022   -1,261  -2,280   1,510   2,254     249     -26    -275
034      620     799   6,012   3,759   6,632   4,558  -2,074
038    1,533   4,706   9,344   2,945  10,877   7,651  -3,226
040    2,384   3,753   8,981   3,433  11,365   7,186  -4,179
037      969   3,764   7,324      36   8,293   3,800  -4,493
036    1,482   5,527   9,847    -480  11,329   5,047  -6,282
039    2,071   3,256   8,411     836  10,482   4,092  -6,390
035    2,007   2,358   8,961   2,163  10,968   4,521  -6,447
042      882   2,195   7,908    -323   8,790   1,872  -6,918
043    2,532     162   8,001   1,059  10,533   1,221  -9,312
080    1,959   1,789   9,567     127  11,526   1,916  -9,610
074    1,127   2,708   9,454  -2,185  10,581     523 -10,058
031    3,017  -1,816  13,479    -412  16,496  -2,228 -18,724

A couple of notes here. Defining “Latino district” is subjective, and I make no claim that my way is optimal. What you see above is almost all of the districts that are represented by a Latino member, plus HD80, which despite being majority Latino is still represented by Democrat Tracy King. I skipped HDs 49 (Gina Hinojosa) and 50 (Celia Israel) because the’re much more Anglo than Latino. HDs 102, 105, and 107 were held by non-Latino Republicans before being flipped by Democrats in 2016 and 2018. HD43 is held by the one Latino Republican in the House, JM Lozano, who won originally as a Democrat in 2008 and then changed parties after the 2010 election. HDs 79 and 90 were held by Anglo Democrats in 2012; Lon Burnam was primaried out by Rep. Ramon Romero in 2014, and Joe Pickett resigned following the 2018 election due to health challenges.

There’s a lot of data here, and I’ll try to keep this manageable. All the districts that showed a net gain for Dems over both elections are in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Travis (HD51), and Tarrant (HD90), plus HD41 in Hidalgo County. In Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant, there were net gains in each cycle. In El Paso, there were big gains in 2016 and more modest gains in 2020, with the exception of HD75, which had a slight gain for Republicans in 2020. HD75 is the easternmost and thus most rural of the El Paso districts. It also still voted 66.5% to 31.9% for Biden in 2020, just for some perspective.

In Harris, all five districts gained in 2016, but only HD148 also gained in 2020. HD145 came close to breaking even, while HDs 140, 143, and 144 all moved towards Republicans; we saw this when we looked at the Harris County Senate districts and talked about SD06. This is the first of several places where I will shrug my shoulders and say “we’ll see what happens in 2022”. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. We’ve discussed this topic numerous times, and as there are forces moving urban and college-educated voters towards Democrats, the same forces are moving rural and non-college voters towards Republicans. The biggest of those forces is Donald Trump, whose presence on the ballot helped Republicans in 2016 and 2020 but whose absence hurt them in 2018. We just don’t know yet what 2022 will bring.

Of the districts that had net Republican gains, HD22 is in Jefferson County (basically, it’s Beaumont; Dade Phelan’s HD21 has the rest of JeffCo plus Orange County) and HD34 is in Nueces County. Jefferson County has been slowly losing population over time, and I think that was a big driver of what happened with HD22. It’s also much more Black than Latino, and thus maybe is a better fit with the next data set, but it has long been represented by Rep. Joe Deshtotel, and this is the decision I made. Nueces County also has the Republican-held HD32 in it, and it showed a net Democratic gain of 1,576 votes over the two cycles, with most of that in 2016 but still a small Dem net in 2020. Its Latino voting age population is about 46%, nearly identical to its Anglo VAP. HD34 was one of the tighter districts even before 2020, and I figure it’s on the target list for Republicans in redistricting.

Most of the other districts are in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Webb counties, and while 2020 was a better year for Republicans in all of them, I don’t think that will necessarily be the case in 2022, a belief driven in part by the incumbency theory and in part by my own wishfulness. That said, as noted before the shifts were more muted downballot, with Trump outperforming other Republicans in those districts. I had my doubts about the durability of Democratic gains in 2016 because of the disparity between the Hillary numbers and the rest of the numbers, and I think it’s fair to have those same doubts here. We do know how it went in 2018, but as before Trump is not on the ballot in 2022. Which force is stronger? Have the underlying conditions changed? I don’t know and neither does anyone else at this time.

HDs 31, 74, and 80 are all cobbled out of smaller counties, and I have much less hope for them, but who knows what the combined effects of the freeze and the Abbott Wall will have. The main thing I took away from analyzing this data is that there was already a Republican shift in 31 and 74 in 2016 with a near miss in 80, though they all rebounded in a Democratic direction in 2018. How much of this was caused by new voters, and how much by swapping allegiances, those are big questions to ponder.

Let’s move on. These are the predominantly Black districts:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
046     -331   7,462   4,363  20,080   4,032  27,542  23,510
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
147   -1,282   3,575   4,571   9,831   3,289  13,406  10,117
109     -914    -500   1,853  11,161     939  10,661   9,722
111   -1,449  -1,155   1,627   8,981     178   7,826   7,648
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
100     -840    -537   2,107   7,799   1,267   7,262   5,995
142      294   2,093   4,685   8,804   4,979  10,897   5,918
131     -642   2,681   4,289   6,642   3,647   9,323   5,676
146   -1,653    -923   2,438   6,798     785   5,875   5,090
139   -1,290   1,216   4,826   6,786   3,536   8,002   4,466
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
141      218    -721   2,594   4,405   2,812   3,684     872
110     -101  -3,010   1,820   3,362   1,719     352  -1,367

HD27 is in Fort Bend, HD46 is in Travis (it’s also much more Latino than Black but has long been represented by a Black legislator, with Dawnna Dukes preceding Sheryl Cole; it is the inverse of HD22 in that way), HD95 is in Tarrant, and HD120 is in Bexar. HD101 in Tarrant County has a higher Black percentage of its population than either HDs 46 or 120, but it’s held by the Anglo Dem Chris Turner, so I skipped it. All the rest are in Harris and Dallas. The range of outcomes here is fascinating. I think what we see in the 2016 results, at least in some of these districts, is a bit of a letdown in enthusiasm from Obama to Clinton, with perhaps a bit of the campaign to dampen turnout among Black Democrats finding some success. Some districts in Harris County like HD141 have had pretty modest growth in population and voter registration as well. I don’t know what the story may have been in HD110, but if one of my Dallas readers would like to offer a few words, I’d be interested in hearing them.

There was some evidence around the country of Trump making modest gains with Black voters, mostly Black men, in 2020. I do see a case for that here, because even as Dems had net gains in 2020 – significant gains, in some of these districts – their share of the total new turnout is smaller than you’d otherwise expect. For example, HD131 voted 80.6% to 18.5% for Biden, but only 60.8% of the extra voters in 2020 voted for Biden. HD131 had voted 84.1% to 13.3% for Hillary in 2016, meaning that Trump cut almost ten points off of his deficit from 2016. This is your reminder that a shift in vote share towards one party is not the same as a shift in total votes towards one party. We’ve had this conversation about Democrats making percentage point gains in some heavily Republican areas while still falling farther behind, and this is that same conversation from the other side.

Finally, here are the four districts represented by Asian American legislators:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
112   -2,140   4,427   5,086  10,634   2,946  15,061  12,115
137     -848   2,147   2,435   4,099   1,587   6,246   4,659
149   -2,592   3,504   8,134   4,645   5,542   8,149   2,607

This grouping is even more tenuous than the Latino districts, mostly because there’s no such thing as a plurality Asian district. Indeed, only HDs 26 and 149, which are the two most Asian districts in the state, are in the top five; HDs 66, 28, and 67 are the next three in line. They will all be covered in the next post in this series. HD137 is mostly Latino and HD112 is mostly Anglo. Like I said, these are the decisions I made. HD26 is in Fort Bend and was won in 2020 by Republican Jacey Jetton, after years of being held by Rick Miller. It was carried by Biden in 2020 and as you can see it has moved pretty heavily Democratic, but it was still Republican enough to be held by them in an open seat race. HD112 is in Dallas and is held by Angie Chen Button, and like HD108 it was otherwise Democratic in 2020. Good luck with redistricting, that’s all I can say. The other two are in Harris County, with HD137 being held by Gene Wu since 2012. It was 63-34 for Obama in 2012 and 67-31 for Biden in 2020. The most curious case for me is HD149, which as you can see followed a pattern similar to the Latino districts in Harris County; I noted this before when I did the Harris County numbers way back when. I’m not quite sure what to make of those totals, but they don’t keep me awake at night. As with the rest, we’ll see what 2022 has in store for us.

Next time, a closer look at some counties of interest. Let me know what you think.

An alternate route to Medicaid expansion

I’m okay with this.

Texas Democrats have tried for years to convince Republican state leaders to increase access to Medicaid. Now they think they have found a way to do it with or without their help.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and lawmakers from 11 other GOP-led states introduced a measure this week that would give money directly to local governments that want to provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans who currently fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.”

The Cover Outstanding Vulnerable Expansion-eligible Residents (COVER) Now Act would allow counties to apply for the money directly with the federal government, and it would prohibit state leaders from retaliating against them if they do.

Doggett said his aim is to avoid conflict with Republicans.

“You have your ideological objections to Medicaid expansion — I don’t agree, but I accept your position,” he said. “At least let those local leaders who want to take advantage of this and who recognize both the health and economic advantages of doing it, at least let them do that, and walk away and see how it works.”

[…]

Doggett estimated that if Houston, San Antonio and Dallas alone signed on to the proposal, half of the state’s eligible uninsured population would gain access. All three cities are led by Democrats and have pushed for Medicaid expansion.

Statewide, more than 1.2 million Texans would be eligible for Medicaid if state officials were to expand the program, according to a study by the The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University

More than two million people are thought to be in the coverage gap today, meaning they make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Most are people of color, and the biggest group is in Texas, a state that has long had the highest uninsured rate in the country.

Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Every Texan, said the new legislation would also increase funding to state health officials for any added administrative costs.

“Congressman Doggett’s bill really recognizes how entrenched the ultra conservative opposition to expansion is in Texas and the need to really connect the dots about what it’s going to take for us to get possibly a million and a half uninsured adults — the vast majority of them working — coverage,” she said.

I don’t know if the reconciliation process that Rep. Doggett envisions for this would be part of the infrastructure package or as a later budget bill, but either way there will be opportunities. I think the odds of it avoiding conflict with Republicans is basically zero, so the more important consideration is how well-defended it will be from Republican attempts to screw with it or obstruct it. We have seen too many examples in recent times of the state having control over federal money intended for local governments that have resulted in all kinds of bad outcomes, from the delays in appropriating COVID relief to the GLO’s screw job against Houston and Harris County. Cut the state completely out of it, and then hope it’s too difficult for a future Republican Congress or President to mess with it.

Assuming this does go through, I would expect quite a few more counties than those three cited would jump at this. Travis, El Paso, Fort Bend, Cameron, Webb, some other South Texas counties, probably Hays, would certainly take advantage. Nueces, Tarrant, and Williamson would be interesting to watch, and I bet this would add some spice to county races in Collin and Denton and maybe Brazoria. It’s possible that some Republican counties, especially ones with hospitals teetering on the brink of financial disaster, might decide to put aside politics and grab the money, as several Republican states have done. I could definitely see this making a huge dent in the uninsured population, and providing some fodder for the 2022 elections as well. It’s mostly a question of how durable it is, and that’s something that Rep. Doggett can work on. Here’s hoping.

The voting location restrictions of SB7

As Michael Li said on Twitter, this is breathtaking, and not at all in a good way.

The number of Election Day polling places in largely Democratic parts of major Texas counties would fall dramatically under a Republican proposal to change how Texas polling sites are distributed, a Texas Tribune analysis shows. Voting options would be curtailed most in areas with higher shares of voters of color.

Relocating polling sites is part of the GOP’s priority voting bill — Senate Bill 7 — as it was passed in the Texas Senate. It would create a new formula for setting polling places in the handful of mostly Democratic counties with a population of 1 million or more. Although the provision was removed from the bill when passed in the House, it remains on the table as a conference committee of lawmakers begins hammering out a final version of the bill behind closed doors.

Under that provision, counties would be required to distribute polling places based on the share of registered voters in each state House district within the county. The formula would apply only to the state’s five largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — and possibly Collin County once new census figures are released later this year.

A comparison of the Election Day polling locations that were used for the 2020 general election and what would happen under the Senate proposal shows a starkly different distribution of polling sites in Harris and Tarrant counties that would heavily favor voters living in Republican areas.

In Harris County — home to Houston, the state’s biggest city — the formula would mean fewer polling places in 13 of the 24 districts contained in the county, all currently represented by Democrats. Every district held by a Republican would either see a gain in polling places or see no change.

Take a moment and let that sink in, and then go to the story to look at the table. Thirteen Democratic districts would lose a total of 73 voting locations (two others, HDs 135 and 149, would add thirteen), while seven Republican districts would add 59 locations (HDs 128 and 129 would have no change). It doesn’t get any more blatant than this.

For election administrators in the targeted counties, the forced redistribution of polling places would come shortly after most of them ditched Election Day precinct-based voting and began allowing voters to cast ballots at any polling place in a county. Many Texas counties have operated under that model, known as countywide voting, for years, but it has been taken up most recently by both blue urban metros and Republican-leaning suburbs.

“It was unexpected to find language that ties voting locations to where you live exactly in the [same section of state] code that says you can vote wherever,” said Heider Garcia, the elections administrator for Tarrant County, which made the switch to countywide voting in 2019.

While SB 7 targets the state’s biggest counties that use countywide voting, the more than 60 other Texas counties that offer it — many rural and under Republican control — would remain under the state’s more relaxed rules for polling place distribution.

In urban areas, a formula based on voter registration will inherently sway polling places toward Republican-held districts. House districts are drawn to be close to equal in total population, not registration or voter eligibility. Registration numbers are generally much lower in districts represented by Democrats because they tend to have a larger share of residents of color, particularly Hispanic residents — and in some areas Asian residents — who may not be of voting age or citizens. That often results in a smaller population of eligible voters.

But in selecting voting sites, counties generally mull various factors beyond voter registration. They consider details like proximity to public transportation, past voter turnout, areas where voters may be more likely to vote by mail instead of in person and accessibility for voters with disabilities. In urban areas in particular, election officials also look to sites along thoroughfares that see high traffic to make polling places more convenient. Some of the Republican districts that would gain polling places under the proposed formula are situated toward the outskirts of a county or along the county line, while the Democratic seats losing voting sites are closer to the urban core.

“It’s much more than throwing darts at a board,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County election administrator. “There’s a lot of parameters that go into choosing a location. It’s not based on partisanship or what House district you’re in but really what will provide access to voters historically, socially, culturally, transportation-wise and everything in between.”

Counties like Harris must also confront historic and racist underdevelopment in communities that are home to large populations of people of color, particularly historic Black communities. In some suburban areas, Longoria posited, the county will be able to use a large high school gymnasium or community center where it can set up 20 to 30 voting machines, but in a historically Black neighborhood, they may need two smaller locations.

Emphasis mine. Again: couldn’t be more blatant. This is exactly the sort of thing that the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act would have stopped, because it would have had to be reviewed before it could be implemented. Bill author Sen. Bryan Hughes claims that this is just about ensuring that partisan election officials in these counties can’t favor some voters over others, but when the end result is this ludicrously tilted in a partisan direction, it’s impossible to take that seriously.

As noted in the story, SB7 was greatly changed in the House and is now in conference committee, where no one really knows what will emerge. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone with sufficient influence in that committee will advocate for leaving this provision on the cutting room floor, but we won’t know until they emerge with a finished product. And once the bill, in whatever form, becomes law, the litigation will begin.

The 2022 primary target list

We’re likely to see a significant number of primary challenges in 2022, in all districted offices. That’s partly because 2022 is a post-redistricting year, and with boundaries being shuffled there are always new opportunities for people who find themselves in newly-redrawn districts, partly because party activists have less patience with members who they believe aren’t working in their interests, and partly because some members of the Lege make themselves a target by their actions in the session. To that latter group, let us welcome Rep. Leo Pacheco of San Antonio.

Rep. Leo Pacheco

The Bexar County Democratic Party has censured State Rep. Leo Pacheco, who once served as its chairman, for voting to approve a controversial bill nixing the requirement for Texans to obtain permits to carry handguns.

Pacheco was one of just seven Democrats in the Texas House to vote in favor of the GOP-backed legislation, which is likely to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. Democrats largely opposed the measure, as did gun control groups and some members of law enforcement.

A letter of censure posted Wednesday by the Bexar Democrats points out that the party’s state platform calls for preserving gun rights while “implementing prudent safeguards” to avoid firearm deaths. The platform also calls for prohibiting “open carry of all firearms and repealing ‘campus carry’ policies.”

In an emailed statement, Pacheco’s office declined comment on the letter.

“The representative is waiting until after the end of session to issue any response because his priority is focusing on passing substantive legislation,” the statement said.

Ironically, Rep. Pacheco had previously served as the Bexar County Democratic Party Chair. He was elected in 2018 following the retirement of Rep. Joe Farias. I don’t know a whole lot about his legislative career to this point, which is another way of saying he hadn’t rocked the boat before now. There’s always been a diversity of opinion within the state Democratic Party, more so when there were more Anglo members in rural areas (i.e., prior to 2010, when they were all wiped out in the Republican wave), though the party is more cohesive on a number of issues now. One of those issues is gun control, especially for things like background checks and restrictions on automatic weapons. As we’ve discussed before, public polling data suggests that voters as a whole do not approve of permitless carry, and Democrats really really don’t approve of it. This is what happens when you get out of step with the people you represent.

I will note for the record that while some Democratic reps may have been considering the current political trends when casting their vote on permitless carry, Rep. Pacheco doesn’t really have the same concern. His district voted 55.1 to 40.0 for Hillary Clinton, and 56.2 to 42.4 for Joe Biden. Clinton carried HD118 by 7,233 votes, Biden by 8,380. No shift here.

That doesn’t mean you should start drafting Rep. Pacheco’s political obituary. It doesn’t even guarantee that he’ll face a strong challenger in May or whenever we do get to have our primaries. It does mean he’s on notice, and he’ll either have to do something to make up for this or fight his way through it. We’ll see how it goes for him.

By the way, of the seven Dems who voted for the House permitless carry bill, five were from South Texas/Rio Grande valley districts, which are more rural and shifted towards Trump in 2020, and probably aren’t as out of step on this as Pacheco. The seventh Dem was none other than Harold Dutton, who is on quite a streak here. When the time comes to support a challenger to Dutton, remember that throwing trans kids under the bus isn’t the only reason you have to be mad at him.

Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

There is a website for COVID vaccine signups in Houston

You can’t use it right now, but it’s there.

Houston’s Health Department launched an online portal for residents to apply for an appointment at its COVID-19 vaccine clinic Monday but quickly ran out of available slots for the remainder of the month.

“The response to Houston’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic was massive, quickly filling the appointment slots for the department’s current vaccine allocation,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a City Hall news conference where he was about to get his own shot in the arm.

“The vaccine clinic appointments are booked for the rest of this month, and the department is not taking additional appointments at this time.”

Turner said the city is working to set up additional sites and create additional capacity, although it is unclear when new appointments will be available. Turner said the city hopes to open a “mega site” on Saturday.

The portal, available at houstonemergency.org/covid-19-vaccines, added another way for qualifying residents to book for an appointment. A hotline also is available at 832-393-4220.

The city clinic vaccinated nearly 2,000 residents with the Moderna vaccine in two days. It is accepting residents from the first two phases of the state’s distribution plan, which include front-line emergency workers, people 65 and older, and those over 16 with certain high-risk health conditions.

It’s a good start, but at 2K shots a day, we’re talking two years to get to 75% distribution in the city. We’d like to go a little faster than that. Obviously, the city is limited by how much vaccine it can get, as well as the state regulations. Harris County had its own rough rollout thanks to confusion over who was allowed to sign up. On that first front at least, help is on the way, so maybe in another month or two we’ll see much higher numbers. And at least there is now a central location for this for Houston residents, something that had been sorely lacking before.

There’s some more vaccine coming to Texas, but it’s still not a lot.

On Monday, state health officials announced that 325,000 additional vaccine doses would be getting into the hands of 949 providers in 158 Texas counties over the next week, part of the first round of vaccinations for front-line health workers as well as nursing home residents, Texans over 65 and those with certain medical conditions, among others. Some 121,875 doses are earmarked for long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

But with the number of vaccine doses available still falling far short of what’s needed to cover those who are eligible — and with state officials pushing hospitals and other providers to administer vaccine doses that the providers say they don’t have, aren’t sure are coming or have already administered — confusion and frustration have surrounded the initial few weeks of the vaccination rollout.

Providers have 24 hours to report their vaccination statistics to the Department of State Health Services, and the agency updates its numbers each afternoon with data reported by midnight the day before, so the state’s numbers could lag up to two days behind the reality on the ground.

Officials from the White House down to local doctors have warned that it would take months to have vaccine doses available to everyone who wants one.

“The problem is unrealistic expectations based on the reality on the ground,” said Marshall Cothran, CEO of the Travis County Medical Society, which received 700 doses through a local partnership and had them all scheduled within 48 hours for physicians and staff who are not affiliated with hospitals or other care organizations.

With the new shipments this week, the state has been allotted a total of 1.5 million doses through the first four weeks of distribution, officials said Monday. Providers in 214 of the state’s 254 counties will have received shipments by the end of the week, health officials said.

Some 793,625 doses had been received by providers by midnight Sunday, according to the Texas Department of Health Services.

Of those, 414,211 — just over half of those delivered — had been administered, according to the agency’s dashboard.

Hardesty said the nearly 16,000 doses his facility received are being administered “fast and furiously,” and about 10,000 people have gotten their first dose, with second doses to start in the next week.

“We’re giving them as quickly as we can,” he said.

I don’t doubt that, but let’s be clear that 1.5 million doses is five percent of the state’s population, and that 414K is just a bit more than one percent. Seven hundred doses for Travis County, with 1.3 million people, is a drop in the bucket. If you vaccinated 700 people a day in Travis County, it would take you six years to get everyone. In the end, this won’t take anywhere near that long, but we are talking months, and in the meantime the hospitals are also dealing with an insane surge in new cases. I can’t emphasize enough how much we needed to keep a lid on this, and how badly we failed at that.

Anyway. Here was the Harris County website for vaccine registration, which is still up but doesn’t have any method for signing up for a COVID shot at this time. Dallas County has its own website, while Bexar County had a similar experience as Houston did. It will get better, I’m sure, but the early days are going to be chaotic.

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

Counties of interest, part four: Around Bexar

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant
Part 3 – Counties around Travis

Pop quiz, hotshot: Close your eyes, or cover the table below, and name for me the seven counties that border Bexar. Go ahead, I’ll wait.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Atascosa      7,461    5,133    8,618    4,651   12,020    5,865   -3,827
Bandera       7,426    1,864    8,163    1,726   10,050    2,503   -1,985
Comal        39,318   11,450   45,136   14,238   62,260   24,369  -10,023
Guadalupe    33,117   15,744   36,632   18,391   47,423   28,706   -1,344
Kendall      14,508    3,043   15,700    3,643   20,064    6,008   -2,591
Medina       11,079    4,784   12,085    4,634   15,599    6,731   -2,573
Wilson       12,218    4,821   13,998    4,790   18,457    6,350   -4,710

Unless you’re a true geography nerd, or just a very aware (or well-traveled) resident of the area, I’m guessing you didn’t get all seven. Comal, which you pass through on your way to Austin, and Guadalupe, to the east as you travel I-10 to or from Houston, are the gimmes. They’re also the two largest, with Comal and more recently Guadalupe blending into Bexar from a development perspective. I’ve talked a lot about Comal County, which has tripled in population since 1990 and which puts up big numbers for the Republican Party; I call it Montgomery County’s little brother, but it’s doing its best to try to catch up. I think it feels a little to me like Montgomery because it’s also this booming suburb a few miles away from the big city, with enough distance to be its own separate entity but with any remaining vacant space between them rapidly vanishing.

Guadalupe, on the other hand, feels more remote to me because for most of my time in Texas, there was very little between Seguin and Loop 1604, and even then there wasn’t much between 1604 and Loop 410. That change is more recent, and to my eyes more dramatic since I don’t travel that way all that often and had just been very used to the former emptiness. It’s really interesting to me that while Comal is still getting redder, Guadalupe is more or less holding in place, with Republican growth only slightly outpacing Democratic growth as its population has blossomed. Guadalupe feels more rural to me while Comal feels more suburban, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent much more time in New Braunfels (I have family there) than in Seguin. I’d love to hear more about this from anyone in this part of the state.

I just don’t know much about the other counties, from the north through the west and around to the south and southeast of Bexar. I’ve been to Kendall (in particular, the town of Boerne) and Bandera, but not since the 80s. Kendall and Medina seem like long-term candidates for suburban sprawl, as both have a piece of I-10 and Medina has I-35 running through it. I know nothing at all about Wilson and Atascosa. I’m going to stop here because I don’t want to babble, but again if someone reading this can tell us more about the future prospects in these counties, please do so.

A high level look at the changing suburbs

The Trib takes a broad and high-level look at what I’m digging into now.

Although they didn’t get the blue wave they expected, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.

An analysis of the presidential vote in solidly suburban Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hays and Williamson counties, plus partly suburban Tarrant County, showed that Republicans went from an advantage of more than 180,000 total votes in those counties in 2016 to less than a thousand votes in 2020, according to the latest data.

“This was not, on a whole, a good night for Democrats, it’s not what they hoped,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “But Democrats did see some gains and some success flipping areas in the suburbs.”

[…]

Some of Democrats’ biggest gains happened in Central Texas. Williamson County, where Trump won by 9.7% four years ago, flipped in 2020 and went to Biden by just over 1%. Hays County, which Trump won by less than 1% in 2016, gave Biden a nearly 11% victory this year. Both counties also supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterm elections.

Greenberg said those two counties are a perfect example of the trend that is helping Democrats in the suburbs: a growing population, particularly in demographic groups that tend to be more left-leaning. Since 2010, Williamson County alone has added more than 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You see a growing population, a younger population, highly educated. Those kinds of voters are moving towards the Democrats,” Greenberg said.

In the Greater Houston area, Fort Bend County, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, was even more favorable for Biden, who won by 37,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s roughly 17,000-vote margin in 2016.

Fort Bend’s population is 811,688, and 20% of the population is Asian, according to the U.S. census.

“That county has become pretty solidly Democratic, and that happened quickly,” Cross said. “And it’s because of these younger, more educated and more diverse voters. It’s an example of what the Asian American vote can change.”

In North Texas, in Denton and Collin counties, Republicans expanded their margins from the 2018 midterms, but compared with the 2016 presidential election, Democrats narrowed the gap: In Denton County, Trump’s 20% victory in 2016 shrunk to 8.1% this year, while his margin in Collin County fell from 16% to 4.6%.

Meanwhile in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is surrounded by a tapestry of suburbs, counting is still ongoing, but the latest results show that Democrats might be able to flip the county.

Not all suburban counties became as competitive as Tarrant. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, where more than 270,000 people voted, Republicans still had a comfortable 44% margin in 2020, 7% less than in the 2016 presidential election.

All of this is true, and there are some nice charts in the story to look at, but it obscures a couple of points. One, with regard to Montgomery County, it’s not the percentage margin that matters, it’s the raw vote differential. Trump won Montgomery county by 104,479 votes in 2016. He won it by 118,969 votes in 2020. It’s nice that the second derivative of their growth curve is now negative, but we need to start shrinking that gap, not just slowing its acceleration. Joe Biden will end up about 650K votes behind Donald Trump. That’s about 160K votes closer than Hillary Clinton got. If we want to make it easier for Biden, or Kamala Harris, or someone else, in 2024, that’s the target. It’s preferable if Montgomery County is not making that job more difficult.

The other point is that this discussion leaves out too much. The reason I wanted to look at all the counties that surround the big urban areas is so we can be aware of the places that are growing into becoming like Montgomery – think Parker and Johnson Counties up north – as well as the small counties that punch well above their weight, like Chambers and Liberty. Maybe we don’t have a clear answer for those places yet, but we need to be thinking about them, and we need to make having a plan for them a priority. We’re just conceding too much ground otherwise.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

A first response to the Latino voting (and polling) question

For your consideration:

It’s very much not my intent to pin blame on anyone. As I noted in my post about how voting went in these Latino counties, which includes a lot of RGV counties as well as Bexar and El Paso, I’m just showing what happened. I think Jolt has done a lot of good work, a lot of hard and necessary work, and I salute them for it.

I can’t address the specifics of the numbers cited in those tweets – I don’t have his data, and the public data is quite limited right now. I do have some limited Harris County canvass data, courtesy of Greg Wythe, so I thought I’d bring that in here to continue the discussion. Here’s what I can say about how voting went in the five predominantly Latino State Rep districts in Harris County:


Dist   Trump  Clinton  Trump%  Clinton%  Margin
===============================================
140    6,119   21,009   21.8%     75.0%  14,890
143    8,746   23,873   26.0%     70.9%  15,127
144   10,555   15,885   38.3%     57.6%   5,330
145   10,102   23,534   28.7%     66.8%  13,432
148   14,815   31,004   30.3%     63.4%  16,279

      50,337  115,305   30.4%     69.6%  64,968

Dist   Trump    Biden  Trump%    Biden%  Margin
===============================================
140   10,175   22,651   30.3%     67.4%  12,476
143   13,105   25,109   33.5%     64.1%  12,004
144   14,415   17,174   44.5%     53.0%   2,759
145   15,198   28,200   34.1%     63.4%  13,102
148   20,207   40,821   32.2%     65.0%  20,614

      73,100  133,955   35.3%     64.7%  60,855

The first table is 2016, the second is 2020. Please note that while the percentages for each candidate is their actual percentage for all voters in the district, the totals at the bottom are just the two-candidate values. I apologize for mixing apples and oranges. We should note that while these five districts are the five predominantly Latino districts in Houston, there is some variance. HDs 140 and 143 have the largest Latino population totals by percentage, while the others have a significant minority of Anglo residents. HD144 includes the Pasadena area, while HDs 145 and 148 include parts of the Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. HD148 is probably the least Latino of the five, and is currently represented by Anna Eastman, who won the special election to serve the remainder of Jessica Farrar’s term, though she was defeated in the primary by Penny Shaw.

As you can see, Trump improved on his 2016 performance in all five districts. Biden got more votes than Clinton in all five districts, but had a lower percentage in all but HD148. The reason both Trump and Biden could see an increase in percentage in HD148 is because the third-party share of the vote was so high in 2016 – it was over six percent that year, but looks to be less than three percent this year. Overall, Trump lost these five districts by about four thousand fewer votes than he did in 2016, with about 20K more votes cast.

This is not an eye-popping change like what we saw in some RGV counties was, but it’s still a decline. I don’t know how much of that is from Latinos voting for Trump, and how much is from Anglo voters in these districts turning out for Trump. Jolt’s mission is to turn out Latino voters, and in the aggregate that’s going to be good for Democrats even if there are some rough spots, and even if it’s not quite as good as we might have expected. My approach is not as granular as it could be, so we shouldn’t draw broad conclusions from it. There are plenty of Latino precincts elsewhere in Harris County – HDs 137 and 138 will have quite a few – so there’s much more to be said. This is the data I have right now. Make of it what you will.

So what happened in the Latino counties?

Let’s go to the data:


County       Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden
=============================================
Bexar      240,333  319,550  303,871  440,823
Cameron     29,472   59,402   48,834   63,732
Dimmit         974    2,173    1,384    2,264
El Paso     55,512  147,843   81,235  168,801
Frio         1,856    2,444    2,812    2,421
Hidalgo     48,642  118,809   89,925  127,391
Jim Hogg       430    1,635      831    1,197
Jim Wells    5,420    6,694    7,077    5,094
Maverick     2,816   10,397    6,881    8,324
Nueces      50,766   49,198   64,467   60,749
Presidio       652    1,458      721    1,463
Starr        2,224    9,289    8,224    9,099
Webb        12,947   42,307   18,985   32,442
Willacy      1,547    3,422    2,437    3,097
Zapata       1,029    2,063    2,032    1,820
Zavala         694    2,636    1,490    2,864

Total      453,643  779,320  641,116  931,555

County      Trump% Clinton%   Trump%  Biden%
============================================
Bexar        42.9%    57.1%    40.8%   59.2%
Cameron      33.2%    66.8%    43.4%   56.6%
Dimmit       31.0%    69.0%    37.9%   62.1%
El Paso      27.3%    72.7%    32.5%   67.5%
Frio         43.2%    56.8%    53.7%   46.3%
Hidalgo      29.0%    71.0%    41.4%   58.6%
Jim Hogg     20.8%    79.2%    41.0%   59.0%
Jim Wells    44.7%    55.3%    58.1%   41.9%
Maverick     21.3%    78.7%    45.3%   54.7%
Nueces       50.8%    49.2%    51.5%   48.5%
Presidio     30.9%    69.1%    33.0%   67.0%
Starr        19.3%    81.7%    47.5%   52.5%
Webb         23.4%    76.6%    36.9%   63.1%
Willacy      31.1%    68.9%    44.0%   56.0%
Zapata       33.3%    66.7%    52.8%   47.2%
Zavala       20.8%    79.2%    34.2%   65.8%

Total        36.8%    63.2%    40.8%   59.2%

Webb County totals are early voting only – they have taken their sweet time getting those results. I have no prescriptions to offer, and even if I did, I’d be the wrong person to listen to for them. I’m just reporting what happened. As others have observed, in some counties Biden met or exceeded Hillary Clinton’s numbers from 2016, but Trump greatly increased his numbers from that election. You may recall that in the last NYT/Siena poll, Nate Cohn observed that higher turnout, at least beyond a certain point, didn’t actually benefit Biden, because sufficiently high Latino turnout wasn’t in his favor. Starr County was a particularly shocking example of that, but we see that in some larger counties like Hidalgo and Cameron, and to a lesser extent El Paso as well. In some counties – Maverick, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Willacy – it appears some Clinton voters may have switched to Trump, or not voted while non-participants from 2016 came in. Bexar County was the only clear improvement for Biden. If you had to pick only one county for that, Bexar would be the one, but there’s only so much it can do.

You can look at this two ways. Hillary Clinton netted 346K votes, while Biden netted 290K. That’s not all that much, but there’s the ground we could have gained given the higher turnout as well as the ground we lost. If Biden had performed at exactly the same level as Clinton, he’d have netted 415K votes. Adjust the final score to account for that, and Biden would have lost by four and a half points, instead of almost six. Wouldn’t have mattered in this case, but it wouldn’t have taken much. Plus, you know, better to make your task easier rather than harder.

Like I said, I have no solutions to offer. Plenty of smart people have plenty of ideas, and quite a few of them were raising issues before the election. Might be a good idea to listen to them. All I’m saying is that whatever happened here, it wasn’t what we wanted. If we want to avoid a repeat, we better get to work.

Not everyone will be sending in their mail ballot

I get this.

Samina Mirza had read enough in the news about U.S. Postal Service delays that she decided there was no way she’d trust the mail to deliver her ballot to Harris County election officials on time.

The 70-year-old retired nonprofit staffer had originally planned to drop off her ballot at a location near her home in Katy, until Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation limiting counties to just one drop-off site.

“I wasn’t going to drive 25 miles to downtown Houston to use the dropbox because the nearest one was taken away, so I said ‘OK that’s fine, I’ll take a chance and just vote in person,’” said Mirza, who voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president.

Mirza is one of about 32,000 voters in Harris County and almost 9,600 in Bexar County who had received a mail-in ballot but chose to instead vote in person as of Wednesday — and there’s still a week and a half left of early voting to go. That’s about 13 percent and 9 percent of all voters who received mail ballots in each county, respectively.

About 759,000 Harris County residents had voted early in person by Wednesday and about 115,000 had done so by mail. In Bexar County, about 326,000 had voted in person and about 70,000 by mail.

“Since there are more people voting by mail in general, it does make sense that some people might change their mind for whatever reason and decide to vote in person,” said Roxanne Werner, Harris County spokeswoman. “Some people may have applied months ago, and with news about USPS and general situations changing, they may have decided to vote in person.”

[…]

Some who switched to in-person voting, like Mirza, cited concerns about the reliability of the mail. Others said they felt attached to their habit of in-person voting. Others still felt more reassured about the safety of the polling places with the longer early voting period, and after observing early voting procedures adapted for the pandemic.

The bottom line for all of the voters, though, was that in a high-stakes election that’s drawing record numbers of Texans to the polls, they didn’t want to take a chance that their vote would not count.

Still, it’s putting an extra burden on poll workers who are already stretched thin handling high turnout and trying to manage wait times that increase potential exposure to the virus.

Well, yes. That was one of the reasons why election administrators were encouraging people to vote by mail in the first place. Not that any of our fake fraud-obsessed Republican leaders cared. Had Harris and other counties been allowed to have more than one mail ballot dropoff location, that would have also worked. But as someone once said, it is what it is. At least these folks will still be voting – as we have observed, the harder the Republicans have made it to vote, the more determined everyone seems to be. Shouldn’t have to be this way, and someday we will make it better, but for now this is where we are.

If you received a mail ballot – not just an application, but an actual mail ballot – you must bring it with you and turn it in if you decide to vote in person. Your vote will be provisional otherwise. No big deal, people do this, just bring it with you. Or fill it out and mail it in (quickly!) or drop it off. Just make sure you vote.