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Bexar County

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.

Please don’t screw up SD19 this time

Here’s hoping.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

If elected to the Texas Senate, Roland Gutierrez promises not to end his tenure in federal prison. During a September phone call, the six-term state House rep assured me: “I’ve led my life as a responsible person; my parents raised me right.”

It’s a low bar. But Democrats in state Senate District 19—a sprawling district rooted in San Antonio that sweeps down to Eagle Pass and all the way out to far West Texas—have to start somewhere. The last liberal to hold the seat, Carlos Uresti, stepped down in 2018 just before being sentenced to 12 years’ incarceration for fraud and bribery. Now, after cinching the Democratic nomination in July, it’s up to Gutierrez to carry the torch of noncriminal progressive governance in SD-19.

The race won’t make the marquee this November. In Texas, the big-ticket fights are over the presidency, the U.S. Senate, and the state House. But a Gutierrez win would reassert Democratic control of a historically blue stronghold. It could also force a battle at the Capitol over the state Senate’s supermajority voting rules. And lastly—forgive me, reader, for mixing hope and Texas politics—it could even get the ball rolling on legal marijuana.

Standing in Gutierrez’s way: The Republican who’s held the seat the last two years, a former game warden by the name of Pete Flores—the bespectacled, cowboy hat-wearing embodiment of one of the Democrats’ worst electoral blunders in recent years.

I will pull one small piece of consolation out of the debacle that was the SD19 special election from 2018: After Flores’ stunning victory, I read more than one story, and many more than one quote from Republican elected officials like Dan Patrick, that were somewhere between skeptical and openly contemptuous of the idea that there was going to be a “blue wave” in Texas that year. I think we all know how that turned out, and it served as yet another reminder that weird low-turnout special election results just aren’t terribly predictive of anything.

All we really need to happen here is for 2020 to be a normal year, more or less, for Gutierrez to win and fix this error. In 2016, and again in 2018, SD19 was basically a ten-point Democratic district, with some variation on both ends. Carlos Uresti won it by 16 points in 2016. Gutierrez likely won’t do quite that well, as being the incumbent ought to help Flores a bit, but 2020 ought to be a pretty good year for Dems overall, with Bexar County giving Gutierrez a boost. I admit to being a little concerned about Gutierrez’s mediocre fundraising, but again, all we really need is typical performance from this district. Losing SD19 in the 2018 special election was upsetting, but in the end you could see how it happened. Losing it again this year would be inexcusable. Let’s not let that happen, mmmkay?

And it’s off to SCOTX for the Republicans who want to stop drive-through voting

It was inevitable.

State and local Republicans have taken their challenge of drive-thru voting in Harris County to the Texas Supreme Court.

In separate petitions, the Texas and Harris County GOP are asking the state’s highest court to limit drive-thru voting, which Clerk Christopher Hollins opened this year at 10 sites and made available to all voters.

The GOP argues the new practice is a form of curbside voting, which only is allowed for people who are sick at the time, have a physical condition that requires personal assistance or are at risk of injured health if they venture inside a polling location.

[…]

“The aforementioned criteria for curbside voting is equally applicable to ballots by mail voting,” the petition said. “With respect to ballot by mail voting, the Texas Supreme Court has already held that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code, and therefore, is not a sufficient basis to permit a voter to validly vote by mail.”

The county argues its drive-thru sites are not a form of curbside voting. The 10 sites are contained within a parking garage or tent facilities, a quality attorneys argue satisfies the criteria to be polling sites in their own right.

“The basic requirement for polling places is that it’s in a building,” Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said. “We’re interpreting that as long as we have a permanent or temporary structure,” it’s OK.

Even if it were curbside voting, Ray argued, it is up to the voter to decide whether he or she has a disability. The county does not have the legal authority to question disability claims, he said.

It is not clear how the votes already cast at drive-thru sites would be handled if the Supreme Court were to side with the plaintiffs.

The state GOP’s petition asks for a ruling forcing Hollins to “reject any curbside voting efforts” that do not comply with its interpretation of the law.

See here and here for the background, and here for both of the plaintiffs’ petitions. I have no idea how quickly the Supreme Court might move on this, but we’ve had three full days of drive-through voting so far, and going by the daily report, thousands of people have used it. I can’t imagine any ruling for the plaintiffs that wouldn’t be deeply disruptive, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s not supposed to happen with court rulings close to an election. But like I’ve said, the Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, and all we can do is adjust when they do it. Stay tuned.

Petition to stop drive-through voting dismissed

That was quick.

Drive-thru and curbside voting programs in Harris County can continue after a state appeals court Wednesday quickly threw out a last-minute lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party challenging the county’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. The state GOP had filed suit Monday night asking the court to place limits on curbside voting and halt drive-thru voting.

The appellate judges said the party and a voter who filed the suit did so too late, and did not show how they specifically might be injured by the voting practices. The lawsuit was filed just hours before early voting polls opened and more than a month after the Harris County Clerk announced his plan for drive-thru voting.

“The election is currently in progress and the relators delayed filing this mandamus until over a month after learning of the actions of the Harris County Clerk’s Office,” the panel of three judges on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals wrote in their ruling dismissing the case.

A Texas Republican Party spokesperson said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court “to ensure that no illegal votes would be cast and counted in this election.” In an unrelated recent voting lawsuit, the state’s high court ruled against another voting challenge because it was filed too late, saying changes during an ongoing election could cause voter confusion.

See here for the background, and here for the 14th Court’s ruling. It should be noted that the court dismissed the petition “sua sponte”, which is the fancy Latin phrase for “on its own initiative”. In other words, the court didn’t ask for the defendants to submit a response – the petition didn’t meet the bar for having a claim to be decided. That’s a pretty strong statement.

A bit from the ruing makes it clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t just the timing. The first two issues the court addressed were the standing of the plaintiffs to bring this challenge:

To have standing under section 273.061, a party must demonstrate that it “possesses an interest in a conflict distinct from that of the general public, such that the defendant’s actions have caused the plaintiff some particular injury.” In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, orig. proceeding) (quoting Williams v. Lara, 52 S.W.3d 171, 178 (Tex. 2001)).The claimant must show a particularized injury beyond that of the general public. Id. “Our decisions have always required a plaintiff to allege some injury distinct from that sustained by the public at large.” Brown v. Todd, 53 S.W.3d 297, 302 (Tex. 2001). “No Texas court has ever recognized that a plaintiff’s status as a voter, without more, confers standing to challenge the lawfulness of governmental acts.” Id. For example, a voter lacks standing to seek the removal of an ineligible candidate from the ballot because the voter has no special interest. See, e.g., Clifton v. Walters, 308 S.W.3d 94, 99 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2010, pet. denied); Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).

Standing requires “a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court.” Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 154. Texas has adopted the federal courts’ standing doctrine to determine the constitutional jurisdiction of state courts. Id. To maintain standing, petitioners must show: (1) an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent”; (2) that the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s challenged actions; and (3) that it is “‘likely,’ as opposed to merely ‘speculative,’ and that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.’” Id. at 154–55 (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992)).

RELATORS’ FAILURE TO SHOW STANDING

Pichardo argues that he has standing to obtain mandamus relief under Election Code section 273.061 because, unless Hollins is compelled to enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting, Pichardo is at risk of having his vote canceled out by an ineligible vote. But that alleged harm is true of every member of the general public who is registered to vote. Pichardo lacks standing because he has not shown that he has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., Brown, 53 S.W.3d at 302; In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553; In re Pichardo, No. 14-20-00685-CV, 2020 WL 5950178, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 8, 2020, orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The Republican Party of Texas argues that Hollins’s alleged intent to not enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting will harm its mission and purpose of advancing limited government, lower taxes, less spending, and individual liberty and promoting compliance with state election statutes. The Republican Party of Texas lacks standing because it has not shown that it has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553. The Republican Party of Texas cites no authority that supports its standing argument.

In other words, neither the voter they dragged up to be a plaintiff, nor the Republican Party of Texas itself, can claim any injury that a court would recognize. Their complaint basically amounts to “but some people might vote in a way we don’t like”, and the court has no time for that. At least, this court had no time for it. I suppose SCOTX could do something different, but that’s always the risk. The fact that voting has in fact already started should also be a barrier to entry, but again, we’ll see.

Three minor points of note: One, the GOP was represented by our old buddy Andy Taylor – just search the archives for that name, and you’ll see why I’m laughing. Two, this ruling also cited the 2008 lawsuit brought by supporters of then-Sen. Kim Brimer in their attempt to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, before she successfully knocked Brimer out of the Senate. And three, based on that “In re Pichardo” footnote, this particular plaintiff has served that role for whichever Republican group is seeking to stop some form of voting in court before, during this cycle. Put that name on your watch list for the future, these guys get around. The Chron has more.

State GOP files suit to stop curbside voting in Harris County

Honesty, it feels like they’re just trolling now.

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs.

State election law has long allowed voters with medical conditions to vote curbside. After they arrive at a polling location, a ballot is brought outside to them in their vehicle by an election worker. In addition to urging qualified voters to use the curbside option this year, Harris County also opened designated “drive-thru” polling locations for all voters, where poll workers hand people a voting machine through their car window after checking their photo identification.

The state GOP’s lawsuit, filed in a state appeals court in Houston, seeks to halt the drive-thru voting program and limit curbside voting to those who have submitted sworn applications saying they qualify for it. Glenn Smith, a senior strategist with Progress Texas, said Tuesday he could find nothing in the law requiring an application to vote curbside. Texas election law instructs election officers to deliver an on-site curbside ballot if a voter is “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Unless stopped, each of these instances of illegal voting will cast a cloud over the results of the General Election,” the lawsuit states.

Chris Hollins, the Harris County Clerk, said the latest lawsuit is in line with the Republican Party “feverishly” using resources to limit people’s right to vote.

“This lawsuit is not only frivolous, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the differences between curbside voting — for voters with disabilities, including illness — and drive-thru voting, which is available for all voters who want to vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

[…]

The Republicans argue that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn’t enough under state election law to qualify for curbside voting. Their point is bolstered by a May ruling from the all-Republican state Supreme Court which said a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not a disability that qualifies Texans to vote by mail. But Texas law differentiates between mail-in ballots — which must be requested ahead of time through an application under strict qualifications, like a disability — and curbside voting, which is requested onsite.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has repeatedly said this year that those who have symptoms or signs of the new coronavirus should use curbside voting. The office has provided placards for county election officials to use at polling locations that urge curbside voting for sick people or those who can’t enter a polling place without the “likelihood of injuring your health.”

[…]

Voters must provide photo identification, then will be handed a portable voting machine in their car, according to the website. The clerk’s office notes drive-thru voting is open to all voters, as opposed to curbside voting which is applicable for those with a disability.

The lawsuit filed Monday says drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore can’t be available to all voters. The Republican Party also notes that election law states polling places must be located inside a building, and the county’s promotional video for drive-thru voting is in an outdoor parking lot.

I will admit that I have generally not distinguished between curbside and drive-through voting. I’d not given any thought to the difference, or even that there was a difference. I will point out here that this drive-through method was piloted for the primary runoffs, and formally announced as part of the county’s overall election plan in August. I will also note that Bexar County had announced their own plans for drive-though voting even earlier in August. This once again raises the question of “if you’re gonna sue about this, why is it taking you so long?”

The Chron has some more details.

In a petition filed late Monday in Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, the Texas Republican Party contended the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting, including drive-thru voting, to voters who are sick or disabled, or if voting inside the polling location “would create a likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Those provisions do not apply to the coronavirus pandemic, the party argued in its filing.

“Chris Hollins is telling all Harris County residents that they are eligible for curbside voting when he knows that is not the case,” the party said in a statement. “Any voter that does not qualify to vote curbside under narrow statutory language would be voting illegally if allowed to vote drive-through.”

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said county officials are comfortable with the legality of drive-thru voting because they do not consider it to be a form of curbside voting. The drive-thru locations, he noted, are all inside buildings, such as garages and temporary structures, which he said prevents them from being curbside under Texas law.

“We looked at this carefully before we decided to do it and feel that it’s within the boundaries of the law,” Ray said. “It’s disingenuous on their part to try to classify drive-thru as curbside, because that is not what we’re doing.”

This was filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, so I presume it’s a writ of mandamus. (I couldn’t find any filings when I searched the 14th Court website, but maybe I was just searching wrong.) I presume also that the 14th Court is under no obligation to issue a ruling in a timely manner – I’d say sitting on this one, then dismissing it as moot is the fate it deserves, but then I’m both petty and Not A Lawyer, so don’t pay too much attention to that. We all understand what this is about, and we all understand the motivation for it. The courts are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’ll go from there. Let’s not give this any more thought than that.

Abbott to allow bars to reopen

Sort of. It’s kind of the most Abbott thing ever.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week — as long as their county governments choose to allow it.

Effective Oct. 14, bars in counties that opt in will be able to resume in-person service at 50% capacity, though all customers must be seated while eating or drinking. The governor will impose no outdoors capacity limits on bars or similar establishments.

“It is time to open them up,” Abbott said in a Facebook video. “If we continue to contain COVID, then these openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future.”

But soon after Abbott’s announcement, the state’s two most populous counties indicated they would not go along with the reopening plan. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that he “will not file to open them at this time,” noting that “our numbers are increasing.” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement that “indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well.”

In addition to bars being allowed to reopen, businesses currently limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity — including establishments like movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo halls and amusement parks.

But Abbott said in his order that bars in regions of the state with high hospitalizations for coronavirus won’t be able to reopen. He defined those regions as areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of hospital capacity.

“It is time to open up more, provided that safe protocols continue to be followed,” Abbott said. “If everyone continues the safe practices, Texas will be able to contain COVID and we will be able to reopen 100%.”

The announcement drew mixed reviews from bar owners. Some applauded the step, while others complained that Abbott left the power in the hands of counties.

“The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it,” said Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. “Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He’s officially passed the buck.”

Klein predicted that most urban counties, where the majority of his organization’s members are located, will not reopen.

You can add Bexar County to that “no bars yet” list as well. There’s a very good reason why most counties will likely decline this invitation from Abbott:

You have to admire Abbott’s consistent strategy of making local officials be the ones who have to make the tough decisions – when he lets them – and otherwise grabbing the power and glory for himself. Naturally, Republican-led counties are all over this, so be sure to keep an eye on the infection rates in places like Montgomery over the next month. To be sure, many bars have been able to operate with various workarounds as restaurants. And for things like outdoor service and to-go service, I support all that. It’s not enough for most bars, and the best thing we could have done about that is allocate a bunch of federal money to help them all – bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, music clubs, hotels, you name it – get through this, to the point where the disease is under control and it is safe for everyone to gather again. Abbott and his buddies were never really interested in any of that, though, so here we are. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I sure hope this works out. I don’t expect that it will, but I hope so anyway.

UPDATE: At least initially, only Denton County among the ten most populous counties will go forward with bar reopenings.

Bexar County poll: Biden 52, Trump 35

From the San Antonio Report:

The new Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a sizable lead over President Donald Trump among registered Bexar County voters.

Poll results released Tuesday, two weeks before early voting begins, found 52 percent of Bexar County voters support Biden while 35 percent back Trump. In 2016, Bexar County voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by 14 percentage points.

[…]

Pollster David Metz, whose firm conducted the Bexar Facts survey of 619 registered Bexar County voters Sept. 12-21, noted that age, race, and gender – in addition to party affiliation – play roles in determining whom voters support for the presidency. Voters under 50 said they will vote for Biden at a 2-to-1 margin, while 48 percent of voters age 65 and over are voting Trump, with 8 percent of senior citizens undecided.

Sixty-three percent of local voters of color said they supported Biden, and 49 percent of whites said they would vote for Trump. Ten percent of white voters were undecided or indicated support for another candidate. Fourteen percent of voters of color were undecided or indicated another candidate.

Only 27 percent of women said they would vote for Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence. Meanwhile, 64 percent favored Biden, whose running mate is California Sen. Kamala Harris.

The Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll also asked voters about other items on the November ballot, including propositions concerning use of sales tax revenue to fund Pre-K 4 SA, a workforce development initiative, and mass transit.

The latest poll surveyed individuals online and by phone (both landlines and cellphones) in English and Spanish. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level, which is typical of large community polls.

The Bexar Facts website hosts the poll data, which they have annoyingly broken up into a million individual posts about each question, all presented as graphics with text you can see when you hover your mouse over the graph item. For the record, Biden leads Trump 52-35 in Bexar County, with 13% in the “don’t know/no answer” column. As noted, Hillary Clinton won Bexar County 54.2 to 40.8 in 2016, so Biden is ahead of that pace. On a proportional basis, Biden is leading by a bit more than 60-40, though if you allocate the independents (Biden leads 42-30 among indies) that make up nearly all of the “DK/NA” respondents, you get 59-41 for Biden. In 2018, Beto took Bexar County 59.5 to 39.6, so Biden is just a hair behind that pace in this poll. In other words, this is consistent with Biden trailing statewide by two or three points.

There was also a question about the Senate race, and in Bexar County MJ Hegar leads John Cornyn 49-38, again with 13% answering “don’t know” or “no answer”. This is consistent with Hegar lagging Biden by a couple of points statewide, though as we have often discussed, that may be a function of lower name ID, which may come out in the wash when people are presented with the basic partisan choice. I stand by my belief that Hegar probably needs Biden to carry Texas for her to have a chance at winning.

I should note that the poll has some basic demographic subtotals. Biden leads Trump 60-25 among Latino voters, and 96-3 among Black voters. White voters go for Trump by a 49-41 margin, much smaller than his lead has been statewide in other polls. For Hegar, it’s 55-27 among Latinos, 89-7 among Blacks, and 54-39 for Cornyn among whites.

Biden’s margin of victory in Bexar County will have an effect on several key races, including CD21 (Chip Roy beat Joe Kopser in Bexar County 49.9 to 48.3, less than 2000 votes, in 2018), CD23 (Will Hurd beat Gina Ortiz Jones 51.1 to 46.8, but in 2016 he had defeated Pete Gallego 53.5 to 40.9), SD19, SBOE5, and HD121. If Jones in CD23 and Wendy Davis in CD21 can break even in Bexar, I feel pretty good about their chances.

The case for voting in person

From Wired, an argument for worrying less about voting by mail because voting in person is still a fine way to do it.

Casting a ballot in person, it turns out, isn’t so dangerous after all. Early in the pandemic, this might have seemed a crazy thing to suggest. The Wisconsin primary, back in March, was widely described in apocalyptic tones. The New York Times called it “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” After state Democrats fought unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for mailing back absentee ballots, the ensuing photos of long lines at Milwaukee polling places seemed to presage an explosion of Covid-19 cases.

But the bomb never blew. As I observed in May, there was no noticeable rise in coronavirus cases thanks to the Wisconsin primary. A follow-up study by researchers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” In fact, case numbers in Milwaukee were lower in the weeks after the election than in the weeks before it. There are caveats: In-person turnout was low overall thanks to broad use of mail-in ballots, and we don’t know how coronavirus prevalence in March will compare with November. Still, it’s telling that there have been no credible reports of virus spikes attributable to any other election this year, even though ill-considered polling place closures have led to further instances of Milwaukee-style overcrowding.

Why might voting be safer than expected? We now know that the coronavirus spreads mostly when people are in sustained indoor contact—settings like a restaurant, a bar, or a shared home or office. The risk of transmission in fleeting encounters, by contrast, is small. Outdoors, it is vanishingly so. Even the massive protests following the killing of George Floyd, which even sympathizers feared would seed outbreaks, did not, according to several large studies. The pandemic is really an indoor problem. Even the defining image of the danger of voting during a pandemic—lines around the block—serves to illustrate why there’s little to fear. For most people, standing in a spaced-out line, outdoors, while wearing masks, entails at most a paltry risk.

“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason I can see why that’d not be the case,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent National Geographic event. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.” Likewise, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice advises, “In-person voting can be conducted safely if jurisdictions take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to voters and election workers.”

This assumes that any lines one may have to wait on will be primarily outside. That’s not been my experience in past elections, but I feel reasonably confident that outdoor lines will be the norm this time around. In Harris and Bexar and Dallas and hopefully other counties, there will be some larger venues, like convention centers and sports arenas, being used as voting locations, which will also help. Point being, I tend to agree with the assessment that the risk of in person voting, assuming widespread mask usage, is fairly minimal.

There are also practical considerations about voting by mail. Jamelle Bouie wrote in the Times that a key piece of Trump’s Election Day strategy is to delegitimize any votes that are not counted on Election Day. Remember how many elections Democrats won in 2018 due to mail ballots that weren’t counted until after Election Day? That’s been called the “blue shift”, and Donald Trump will scream from the rooftops that those mail ballots don’t count and amount to stealing the election if he’s in any position to claim a win on the evening of November 3, regardless of the lie of his statement. The best way to prevent that is to have as many votes counted by the time the news people start giving us numbers from around the country. That means voting in person. Note that in some states, even if your mail ballot is received way early, it may be the case that it won’t be officially tallied until Election Day, which could still lead to this situation. Voting in person will not have that problem.

Other concerns include the unknown potential for mail delivery delays, which G. Elliott Morris tried to quantify, and problems with mail ballots being rejected due to alleged signature mismatches or other issues, which is something that of course happens at a higher rate to Black and Latino voters. (Black voters are, understandably, more dubious about voting by mail.) The recent court order helps in this regard, but it’s still a factor, and we don’t know yet if there will be an appeal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but younger voters are just simply not used to using the postal service, and may have problems with mail ballots as a result. All of this may turn out to be minor, but maybe it won’t. We just don’t know. Again, the remedy here is to vote in person if that is a reasonable option for you.

Of course, to some extent in Texas, this is an academic point. The large majority of us cannot vote by mail, something the state leadership has done everything in its power to ensure will still be the case. I have said and will continue to say, if you do qualify for a mail ballot, by all means apply for it and use it. Having more people vote by mail not only keeps them safe, it also means shorter lines and faster processing times at voting locations, which is something we all want. Just be very prompt about it, and track your ballot to make sure it is received. Use a dropoff location if practical. The real point here is that we all actually do need to make a plan to vote, and that plan needs to encompass the when, the where, and the how. Be part of the solution to ensure that everyone can vote as easily and safely as possible. I don’t need to say how much is riding on that.

County Clerk scales back mail ballot application sendout for now

Seems like a wise tactical move.

Chris Hollins

The Harris County clerk is holding off his plan to send ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County.

County Clerk Chris Hollins said for now he is going to send ballot applications to everyone 65 and older.

Hollis added he will wait for the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to work its way through the court to see if he can send ballot applications to other people in the county.

Hollis also said he tried to discuss this with the Texas Secretary of State but a discussion did not take place. Then Paxton filed his lawsuit on Monday, according to a report from the Texas Tribune.

See here for the background. Sending an application to all the 65-and-over voters is what Clerk Hollins did for the primary runoffs, and no one raised a fuss about it. It seems clear that Hollins has the law on his side, as confirmed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in a recent chat with the Chron editorial board, but politics plays a role as well, and one could argue that turning down the heat a bit is in Hollins’ best interests. One could also argue that getting the state to do something stupid isn’t a bad idea either, but I’ll set that debate aside for now. For now, we wait for some action in the courtroom. The Chron and the Press have more.

(On a side note, Bexar County will be sending vote by mail applications to all of its 65-and-over voters as well. As I said before, this sort of thing should be the norm going forward.)

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.

“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”

He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.

Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”

During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”

[…]

Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”

Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

Despite it all, voter registration keeps increasing

You love to see it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Not even the worst pandemic to hit Texas in a century was enough to stem the surge in voter registrations that has remade the state’s electorate over the past four years.

Just since March, Texas has added nearly 149,000 voters even as the political parties and voter registration groups face new obstacles in signing up people in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The state now has a record 16.4 million voters, 2.1 million more than it had just over four years ago — a 15-percent increase in registrations that is nearly equivalent to the voter rolls of the entire state of Connecticut.

“It is a totally different electorate than it was in 2016,” said Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Harris County and Bexar County have led the way in the last three months with voter registration efforts. In Harris County, voter rolls have grown by 16,000, while in Bexar they are up almost 14,000. Combined, the two counties account for one-fifth of the increase in registrations statewide.

Texas voter registration rolls historically have grown very slowly. From 2002 to 2012, the rolls grew by 800,000. But now, registration is in hyperdrive. Just since November of 2018, Texas has added almost 600,000 voters.

Some of the change is coming from transplants moving from other states, while many others are coming from minority communities that voter registration advocacy groups have targeted over the last four years.

In short, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said 2020 is setting up as a real shootout in regions of the state that have become more competitive because of the diversification and growth of the electorate.

“It’s another step toward Texas being a true battleground,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

In Texas voters don’t register by party affiliation like many other states, making it unclear exactly how many Republican or Democratic voters are in the state.

But about one-third of the 1.3 million new voters since November 2018 come from three counties: Harris, Travis and Bexar — all deeply blue since 2016.

Harris and Bexar being at the top of the list doesn’t surprise Antonio Arellano, who is the leader of Jolt, a voter advocacy group focused on registering young Latino voters and getting them involved in politics. He said his group has been on the ground in those two counties.

While the coronavirus made registration drives impossible in traditional locations such as libraries, county fairs and large events, younger voters can still be found with direct messages on social media, text messages, and digital ads. The virus hasn’t affected those efforts at all.

“We harness culture, art and technology to get it done,” Arellano said.

Each year in Texas, 200,000 Latinos turn 18 — a population that is Jolt’s main focus.

Nice. The March voter registration figures are here, the January figures are here, and the November of 2018 figures are here. Harris County is right at 2.4 million, and I think we have a shot at getting to 2.5 million for November. As the story notes, average monthly voter registration figures are actually up since April, about double what it had been from November of 2018 through March. People have been working it, with Jolt, Battleground Texas, and Beto’s Powered by People all doing a lot of heavy lifting. You want to make a difference, get trained as a volunteer deputy voter registrar – the Harris County Tax Assessor has online ZOOM training sessions to become a VDVR – and join up with one of these groups. Every new voter matters.

I actually drafted this about a month ago, just before the primary runoffs, then as is sometimes the case kept putting off publishing it. Because I procrastinated, you can now see the state and county-by-county voter registration figures by looking at the contest details for the Senate runoff. But this post is even more of a delayed special than that. In the Before Times, I had drafted a story about where a lot of voter registrations were coming from – short answer, the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to D/FW – but between the primary and the world falling apart, I never got around to publishing it. I’m repurposing it for this post, so read on for what I had written a couple of months ago.

(more…)

More election innovation, please

Some good stuff here:

There’s a lot to like in there and in the embedded letter he wrote to Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff, to formalize these ideas. Several of them have been done or have been proposed for Harris County, including sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter 65 and over, having a mega-voting location, expanding early voting hours during the EV period, and having more curbside voting options. Some ideas are new, or at least new to Harris County, such as having a 24-hour early voting location, having more mail ballot dropoff locations, and mailing “a Notice of Election, Sample Ballot, and information on voting safely during COVID-19 to every registered voter” in the county. I love the creativity, the commitment to making voting easier, and especially since this is coming from a County Commissioner, the willingness to put up the money to make it happen. I hope County Clerk Chris Hollins and Harris County Commissioners Court are paying attention.

The other point I would make here is that we could keep doing some or all of these things in future elections, when there will hopefully not be a pandemic to force the issue, for the simple reason that they do in fact make voting easier. I mean, that’s how it should be.

Of course, a key assumption underpinning all this is that there will be enough people to work the elections. Here’s another idea I like for that:

It turns out that this is already legal and open to students 16 years old and older, so it just needs to be better known. Pass it on to the students you know.

For those of us who don’t need a principal’s permission, here’s what we can do:

The Harris County Clerk’s Office is looking for election workers to staff more than 800 voting centers that will be open for the November 3, 2020 General Election. Election workers are also needed three weeks prior to the election to work at approximately 100 voting centers during the Early Voting period, October 13-30.

“We expect a high turnout for the upcoming general election. Early predictions indicate that more than 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County will cast a ballot in November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We need more than 1,000 election workers for the Early Voting period – which has been extended to three weeks – and more than 8,000 election workers for Election Day. I highly encourage all civic-minded residents of Harris County to consider serving our communities as election workers.”

To serve as an election worker, you must be a registered voter in Harris County, have transportation to and from the polling location, and be able to attend training. Bilingual election workers are needed and encouraged to apply. Students 16 years of age and older can apply to work as student clerks. All of these positions are paid.

“We will take every possible measure to keep voters and election workers safe, from keeping voting centers sanitized, to enforcing social distancing, to providing personal protective equipment to all election workers and voters,” said Clerk Hollins.

If you are interested in becoming an election worker, click here to apply online or call 713.755.6965.

This is all-hands-on-deck time. If you can do this, or know someone who can, please take action. ABC-13 has more.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

Today is Primary Runoff Day

Last chance to vote for your party’s nominees. From the inbox:

Today, Tuesday, July 14th, is Election Day for the July 2020 Primary Runoff Elections.Voters can cast their ballots anytime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at any of the 109 voting centers throughout Harris County. For the nearest voting location and estimated wait times go to HarrisVotes.com/WaitTimes. A total of 154,313 voters cast their ballots during the ten-day Early Voting period that concluded on Friday, July 10th.

“These are challenging times for all of us, but I want to encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “This runoff is a critical part of the election process, because it will determine which candidates go on to represent their parties in the General Election in November.”

To protect voters and election workers from COVID-19, all voting centers have been set up to allow for social distancing.  Poll workers have been provided with personal protective equipment including gloves, face masks, and shields. Sanitizing stations are set up at all polling sites, and voters are being provided with finger covers to use while voting. Additional face masks are available for voters who do not have one. Voters exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 can vote curbside to avoid entering the polling center.

To cast a ballot, you must be registered to vote and have one of the following forms of ID:

  • Texas Driver License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS);
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate (EIC) issued by DPS;
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS;
  • Texas License to Carry a Handgun (LTC) issued by DPS;
  • U.S. Military ID Card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. Passport.

Except for the U.S. citizenship certificate, the form of identification you use must be current or have expired no more than four years before being presented at the polls. If you don’t have any of these to use for identification, you can (1) sign a sworn statement explaining why you don’t have those IDs and (2) bring one of the following:

  • Valid voter registration certificate;
  • Certified birth certificate;
  • Current utility bill;
  • Government check;
  • Pay stub or bank statement that includes your name and address; or
  • Copy of or original government document with your name and an address (original required if it contains a photograph).

To expedite your time at the polls, go to HarrisVotes.com to print your personal sample ballot, make your selections, and take it with you when you go vote. If you start the voting process and think you have received the wrong ballot, make sure you let an election official know immediately—before casting your vote.

For more election information, visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also from the inbox, a list of places you can drop off your mail ballot if you didn’t receive it in time to put it in the mail. This is the first time in recent history that there has been more than a single drop-off location in Harris County, as the release says, which is cool. The 11 locations listed there are open 7 to 7, same as the period for voting.

Polling locations can be found here. As a reminder, you can vote at any of these locations. My guess is that the large majority of votes have already been cast for this runoff, so the lines should not be too bad. Do check the wait times at whatever location you’re looking at before heading out, though. And for crying out loud, bring a mask to wear. It’s precisely that mask wearing was not mandated for polling places that has caused some problems in other counties.

A lack of workers willing to run polling sites as Texas continues to report record coronavirus infections is forcing election officials in two major counties to scale back plans for the July 14 primary runoff elections.

Citing a drop-off spurred by fear of the virus, Bexar County, the state’s fourth largest, is expected to close at least eight of its planned 226 voting locations for next Tuesday, according to County Judge Nelson Wolff.

In Tarrant County, the third largest, election officials learned Thursday that the local Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to shutter two of 173 sites planned for election day voting after the parties were unable to find election judges to run the polling places.

Although poll workers are generally being provided with protective gear, Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks when they show up at polling locations is driving some poll workers away, Wolff said.

“There is protection for them in terms of what they try to do, but anybody can walk in without a mask,” Wolff said Wednesday evening during his daily coronavirus-related briefing. “The governor did not cover elections, and so they don’t want to work. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.”

For this election, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. There should be plenty of other locations, most people have probably already voted, and turnout is fairly minimal, though it’s been higher than usual for a primary runoff. The fear, and the bigger picture, is what might happen in November. All signs point to record-breaking turnout this fall, and the last thing we’ll need for that is a scramble for poll workers. I appreciate that Greg Abbott extended early voting for this runoff – I think it made a positive difference – and I believe that will be in play for November. But I refuse to accept that anyone who doesn’t have a valid health reason to not wear a mask should have their personal preferences prioritized over the health and safety of poll workers. The mask mandate needs to extend to the polling places. We’re not taking this seriously enough otherwise.

I’ll have results for you tomorrow, and whatever thoughts I can muster afterward. I’ll look at the data when it’s available. Now go vote if you haven’t already.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

Our wishy-washy Governor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidalgo issues new mask order

Greg Abbott said we could, so there.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masks up

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Riddle me this, Governor

Parody is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one is going to stop you.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do they find these people?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

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

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

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

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

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

More people are requesting mail ballots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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