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Bexar County

Mail ballot rejections were down for November

Good, but still room for more improvement.

More than 10,000 ballots were rejected in the state’s largest counties in Tuesday’s midterm election, making for a rejection rate of about 4 percent, according to preliminary data from the secretary of state’s office.

That’s a vast improvement from the March primary that immediately followed the passage of a Republican-backed election overhaul bill that added a new ID requirement for voting by mail that continues to confuse voters. More than 24,000, or 12 percent, of primary mail ballots were thrown out across the state.

Still, the 4 percent mail-ballot rejection rate is more than double the less than 2 percent tossed in Texas in the last midterm election in 2018.

“There is definitely room to lower rejection rates even more, but the trends we’ve seen since the primary show major improvements across the state, and show the rejection rates are moving in the right direction,” secretary of state’s office spokesman Sam Taylor said. “This was the 4th statewide election with the new ID requirements for mail-in ballots in place, so voters were more familiar with the process generally.”

The number of ballots rejected may decrease as some voters visit their local county clerk’s office to make corrections to their ballots to fix errors by the Monday deadline. The rate was calculated based on most of the state’s 18 largest counties, which accounted for 65 percent of the statewide vote.

[…]

About half of the largest counties’ rejected ballots came from Harris County, the largest county in the state where 1.1 million ballots were cast. About 8 percent of ballots received by the county were rejected.

Out of about 65,000 returned ballots, about 7,000 were rejected, including about 4,700 related to an ID error. Of those rejected, about 1,900 were corrected and counted.

“We have seen a significant decrease in the number of mail ballots rejected,” said elections spokeswoman Leah Shah. “That said, our priority is to ensure that every vote is counted, and we will continue to expand our education and outreach efforts to help close the gap.”

Bexar County, which had one of the highest rejection rates during the primary at 22 percent, managed to keep its denials down, continuing a trend that started during the primary runoffs when it dipped to less than one percent. This election, the rate was about 1 percent.

Emphasis mine, and see here for the previous report in this series. I highlighted that sentence because it may be one factor in the gradual increase in mail ballots counted between Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon. The total increase is larger than 1,900 and for sure many of those were likely corrected even before Election Day, but I’ll be surprised if there were none that were cured during this week. Given that we haven’t reached the deadline to cure them, we will likely see a few more get added to the final tally. I commend the election workers who put in so much effort to make this a smaller problem, I continue to hold up Bexar County as the standard to which we should aspire, and I hope this is the last election where we have to follow this issue so closely. The Press has more.

We hit a new peak in voter registrations

It’s good to see, whatever it “means”.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas now has almost 17.7 million voters — 1.9 million more than four years ago, when Gov. Greg Abbott won re-election.

New voter registration totals from the Texas Division of Elections show the state’s voter rolls are continuing to grow even faster than the population. While the state’s population has grown about 7 percent since 2018, voter registrations have grown about 12 percent.

Nowhere has the surge been bigger than in Harris County, where 230,000 people have been added to the voter rolls since 2018. Tarrant and Bexar counties are next, with more than 130,000 more voters than four years ago. All three counties voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.

The result is that at least 1 of every 5 voters in Texas never cast a general election ballot in the Lone Star State prior to 2014 — a remarkable wild card in a state that had stable politics and a slow stream of new voters for a generation before that.

Some of the biggest percentage increases in voter registrations are coming from booming counties that voted Republican in 2020.

Comal County, just north of San Antonio, saw a 29 percent increase in voter registrations from four years ago — the highest growth percentage of any county in the state. Not far behind was Kaufman County, east of Dallas, which also grew by about 29 percent.

[…]

Since 2014, Texas has added 3.6 million voters — roughly equivalent to the populations of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The increase can be traced to 2014, when a group of campaign strategists from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign launched an effort they called Battleground Texas to build an army of volunteer registrars.

See here and here for some background, and here for historic data. It’s wild that this has accelerated so much in recent years – we’ve talked about how Harris County was basically flat for years prior to 2012. This will have to slow down, at least to equalize to the rate of population growth, but today is not that day.

The increase in voter registration is absolutely a factor in the recent surge in turnout. In 2014, with 14 million voters and 33.7% turnout, there were 4.7 million total ballots. With 17.7 million voters, 33.7% turnout would be almost 6 million votes. Needless to say, we expect a higher percentage turnout than that this year. If we get the 8.3 million voters we got in 2018, that’s 47% this year, while it was 53% in 2018. I don’t know what we’ll get and I’m not trying to make a projection, I’m just noting that we have a higher floor now.

Two DeSantis updates

From the Express News:

Top aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were directly involved in arranging chartered flights that took 48 South Americans from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last month, records show.

Texts from Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, and the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, show Keefe was in San Antonio making arrangements more than a week before the Sept. 14 flights. They also show he was operating with Uthmeier’s knowledge and approval.

Keefe, a former U.S. attorney in north Florida, was on the ground in San Antonio on the day of the two flights and apparently was on one of them, at least for the first leg of the journey, the records show. The flights took off from Kelly Field and stopped briefly in the Florida Panhandle before continuing on to Martha’s Vineyard, a resort island off the coast of Massachusetts.

More than a week before the flights, Keefe texted Uthmeier that he was “back out here” in San Antonio.

“Very good,” Uthmeier texted back on Sept. 5. “You have my full support. Call anytime.”

“Copy. Thanks,” Keefe replied.

The newly released documents include nearly 150 pages of text messages, photos of migrants boarding the chartered aircraft and waivers in which they purportedly agreed to be transported from Texas to Massachusetts. The signatures of the migrants — dated Sept. 13 — were blacked out. Some of them listed Venezuela and Peru as countries of origin.

[…]

The raft of documents was released by the DeSantis administration after the Express-News and other news organizations requested public records related to the flights. The involvement of Keefe and Uthmeier was first reported by Florida news organizations and Politico.

The records include photos showing that a Bexar County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle was on-site when the migrants boarded the planes at Kelly Field. The sheriff’s office acknowledged Monday that a deputy was at the scene.

The deputy was off-duty and had been hired to provide security for the operation with a luggage-sniffing K9, a sheriff’s official said. Deputies are permitted to take on after-hours jobs to earn extra income. The deputy has told his supervisors that he — like the migrants — was misled about the purpose of the flights and his role, the official said.

The deputy is now a witness in the sheriff’s investigation into whether the organizers of the flights committed any crimes in Bexar County.

In a statement to the Express-News, the sheriff’s office said: “We are aware a deputy was at the scene. Early in the investigation, this deputy came forward with information he witnessed which corroborated some of the information supplied by many of the migrants. He is considered a cooperating witness in the case and is not suspected of any wrongdoing at this time.”

Sheriff Javier Salazar said last week that information gathered so far by investigators suggests the migrants may have been victims of “unlawful restraint.” The Texas Penal Code defines unlawful restraint as controlling the movements of another person through force, intimidation or deception — including by transporting the person from one place to another.

See here, here, and here for some background. I don’t know what will ultimately come out of this – Sheriff Salazar has said that DeSantis himself is not under investigation, so the ceiling here is not that high – but at least we’re getting a fuller picture of what did happen. It’s funny how secretive and cloak-and-daggery these guys are about something they otherwise like to brag about. In a story from late last week Sheriff Salazar says he has identified some potential suspects, so perhaps in the near future we’ll get the rest of the story, at least as it is now known. Link via the Current.

From TPM:

Perla Huerta, the woman running the recruitment operation in San Antonio, is an employee of Vertol systems, the military contractor the DeSantis administration hired to run its flights. Huerta was only weeks out of the Army, in which she had served for 20 years. The DeSantis operation was apparently her first assignment working for Vertol. There were several other Vertol employees, most or all retired military, also overseeing the operation in Houston. At Vertol the operation was overseen by top executive Candice Wahowski, an Air Force veteran who had been a military police officer in the Air Force. Wahoswki was also on location in San Antonio. Many of the migrants recruited in San Antonio had met with her.

Much of the article is based on the story of “Emmanuel,” another Venezuelan migrant Huerta hired to help her recruit. In one of the many telling details, she paid him in cash in what amounted to dead drops — money stashed behind dumpsters which he was to retrieve as his compensation.

“The money is going to be in the Bill Miller [restaurant] near your house. It’s going to be behind the dumpster outside in a white envelope.”

Around the whole operation there was a climate of secrecy enforced by Vertol — no recording devices that could capture the voices or images of Vertol employees and so forth. Former employees said the whole company is tinged by an air of paranoia and secrecy. It was this which warned some of the migrants off, fearing that they were being snared in some kind of government operation, which of course was precisely what was happening.

In a notable irony, as Perla and her crew quickly closed down their operation as the flights became a national story, they had a plane ticket to Florida for Emmanuel to get him out of town ahead of any investigation. In other words, the state of Florida ended up footing the bill for Venezuelan asylum seeker Emmanuel’s flight to Florida, the kind of Texas-to-Florida trip DeSantis’s operation was notionally aimed at preventing. A short time later Emmanuel returned to Texas to cooperate with the Bexar County sheriff’s ongoing investigation.

All that is summarized from a Miami Herald story. Again, the spy-versus-spy nature of all this – seriously, using a Bill Miller Barbecue dumpster as a dead drop – is so absurd that it couldn’t possibly fly as fiction, because no one would believe it. I mean, Carl Hiassen writes for the Herald, and he would have thought twice about such a plot detail. It’s precisely because of these comic attempts at secrecy that I’m convinced there’s some actual wrongdoing in there somewhere, just because normal people going about normal business don’t do that kind of thing. It’s time-consuming, easy to screw up, and you look ridiculous when other people hear about it. If there isn’t something there that’s worth covering up then these people are even weirder than I can imagine. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: The hits just keep on coming.

Treasury Department investigating DeSantis

Noted for the record.

The Treasury Department is now investigating whether the taxpayer money Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spent to fly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard for political theater last month came from federal COVID-19 relief.

Richard Delmar, the department’s deputy inspector general, sent a letter to a congressional delegation of Massachusetts lawmakers on Friday saying that his office was reviewing Florida’s use of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) that was established by the American Rescue Plan.

“We will review the allowability of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration generally, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on SLFRF was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” Delmar wrote.

The Treasury official said the department planned to “get this work underway as quickly as possible.”

Delmar’s letter, which was released by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on Wednesday, came in response to the request Markey and five other Massachusetts lawmakers had sent on Sept. 16 asking for a probe into DeSantis’ potential abuse of the aid.

“States should not be permitted to use COVID-19 relief funds for any parochial interest unrelated to the pandemic, particularly for naked political conduct that imposes severe and unjust harms on disadvantaged groups of individuals,” the lawmakers wrote.

While the $12 million DeSantis poured into the gambit didn’t come directly from Congress’ COVID-19 relief funds, it did come from the interest his state had earned off the aid, per the Washington Post.

See here and here for some background. Daily Kos adds some details.

The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had this past June urged the Treasury Department to open a probe into the Florida governor. DeSantis had not yet launched his cruel stunt dumping migrants across the country, but he had been seeking to use $12 million in federal coronavirus funding to aid his anti-immigrant platform. SPLC had warned in its letter that the “proposed misuse of these funds reinforces anti-immigrant policies,” as well as “sets a dangerous precedent.”

Damn, was that on money. DeSantis had already signaled last fall that he was going to make a scandal out of entirely routine flights that the federal government carries out, including under the insurrectionist president. When that didn’t stick long enough to his liking, he went to Texas to just carry out his own flights.

Markey’s office said it has been in contact with federal, state, and local officials regarding DeSantis’ cruel transportation of dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, with support from nonprofits like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts. Markey’s office noted efforts to ensure that vulnerable children and adults transported by DeSantis from Texas to Massachusetts have been met with “continued care.”

DeSantis is not the only anti-immigrant governor under investigation by the Treasury watchdog, as a matter of fact. This past spring, Delmar said the department would be launching a probe into whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott misused federal pandemic funds to keep his illegal Operation Lone Star border stunt operational. The Washington Post reported possible misuse of as much as $1 billion.

Congressional lawmakers led by Texas’ Joaquin Castro and Veronica Escobar had urged the watchdog to investigate Abbott using federal funds like his personal ATM for racist hate, writing that he was diverting money from critical public sector resources. “It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor Abbot to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” they wrote.

This story has just a tangential Texas connection, but I’m following it anyway out of sheer curiosity. Mostly, I want to see if it’s even possible for there to be consequences for would-be authoritarians like DeSantis, who will otherwise keep pushing boundaries since there’s apparently nothing to stop them. Along those lines, we also have this.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on Thursday certified that 49 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month were victims of a crime. The move clears a pathway for those migrants to get a special visa to stay in the country that they otherwise would not have received.

Rachel Self, a Massachusetts attorney working with the migrants, told radio station WGBH that the move by Salazar is a key part of the migrants’ applications for a “U visa,” which is reserved for victims of crime or people who witnessed a crime. In a statement, Salazar said his office had submitted documents with the federal system “to ensure the migrants’ availability as witnesses during the investigation.”

Attorneys like Self are seeking the visas for the migrants on the grounds that they were taken to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses.

“Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint,” Salazar said in a statement.

Salazar said his office has identified witnesses in the case but could not release their names because the investigation is ongoing.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Salazar’s statement hinted that no action would be taken against the Republican governor, saying that “only those who were physically in our jurisdiction at the time of the offense are considered suspects.”

While it is no surprise that there were laws broken in this process, the idea that DeSantis himself could have been targeted by law enforcement was always a big stretch. He’d have plenty of cover even if there were a good circumstantial case to be made. Maybe if Perla does some singing if and when she’s ever hauled in, that could change, but again I would not bet on it. Perhaps just the idea that his own actions led to these migrants getting a long-term stay in the country will serve as a deterrent to future stunts like this by DeSantis. I’ll take what I can get. The Current has more.

UPDATE: Things get even more complex.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine has opened an investigation into whether southern border state governors misled immigrants as part of what he called a “political stunt” to transport them to Washington.

Racine told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune his office is examining whether immigrants were deceived by trip organizers before boarding buses for Washington, including several hundred who were bused from Texas under instructions from Gov. Greg Abbott and dropped near the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Racine’s office has the authority to bring misdemeanor criminal charges or to file civil fraud cases.

Racine said that in interviews with his investigators, arriving immigrants “have talked persuasively about being misled, with talk about promised services.” He offered no specifics about the inquiry, including whether it is being handled by his office’s criminal or civil divisions. The attorney general’s office declined to answer further questions.

Various state and federal laws could apply to transporting immigrants across state lines. Racine’s office could look into whether anyone committed fraud by falsely promising jobs or services, whether there were civil rights violations or whether officials misused taxpayers’ money.

[…]

Racine’s involvement ratchets up the pressure on the governors over their actions.

Elected as a Democrat, Racine criticized the Republican governors for using “people as props. That’s what they’ve done with the immigrants.”

Racine’s office can prosecute certain misdemeanors, and felonies are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But its highest profile work has been bringing civil fraud lawsuits against nonprofits and businesses. In May, it reached a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, alleging that it had abused donors’ funds by overpaying for rentals at the Trump International Hotel.

The governors have said they have done nothing wrong in transporting immigrants to “sanctuary cities” that may be better equipped to care for them. They say they want the rest of the nation to share the burden of what they call the Biden administration’s open border policies.

[…]

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said that some immigrants who were sent from Texas to Harris’ residence in Washington have told his team they were misled about their final destination. The immigrants believed they were bound for Union Station, the city’s central transportation hub, where many hoped to connect with family or trains and buses to other locations. Instead, he said, they were dropped off at about 6 a.m. in an unfamiliar spot, where a church group quickly organized to pick them up.

“I think they are being tricked and being used,” Garcia said.

Since the spring, buses have arrived almost daily at Union Station, where immigrants can now seek support from a new city Office of Migrant Services. So far, Texas taxpayers have spent about $14 million on migrant transportation, according to state records. Buses into Washington have continued in recent days, with several additional arrivals at the vice president’s residence.

As I said above, I don’t know how much actual accountability this can force, but it’s something.

So did Ron DeSantis break Texas law or not?

A couple of lawyers try to figure it out.

Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar has announced a criminal investigation into Venezuelan migrants being induced in San Antonio to board chartered planes and flown to Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken credit for the stunt. The sheriff has said, “I believe there is some criminal activity involved here, but at present, we are trying to keep an open mind and we are going to investigate to find out and to determine what laws were broken if that does turn out to be the case.”

In this analysis, we look at the potential Texas state law charges that might apply. Our analysis may be a useful guide – for criminal investigators, press, potential whistleblowers or witnesses, the public and other stakeholders. We discuss what exactly might be investigated as a possible crime based on currently available information and what additional facts might be developed.

We first set out what we understand to be the relevant facts, drawing from public reports and a class action complaint filed in federal court in Massachusetts. We then turn to the potential charges and their elements, applying the law to the facts known at this time. Should further investigations or reports reveal additional or contradictory evidence, that could of course affect our analysis.

As discussed below, the conduct might violate multiple Texas criminal statutes, including unlawful restraint, exploitation of a child or elderly person, and certain fraud statutes, not to mention conspiracy and aiding and abetting. That said, the criminal investigation is at an early stage, facts are still being developed, and it is too soon to conclude that crimes were committed – or to rule that out.

See here for the background, and read the rest for the analysis. The short answer is that they believe there’s a good likelihood that various laws were broken, though that is clearer about the people who actually lured the migrants onto the plane than it is for DeSantis. Perhaps now that the mysterious Perla has been identified it will be easier to verify some things. Assuming she is arrested and made to testify under oath, which LULAC is pushing for. The bottom line, per the authors, is that “the allegations are serious ones which merit close attention”. It’s getting plenty of attention, it will just take awhile before we begin to get the answers.

The SPURS bills

I admit that I tipped my cap to this one.

What if it took an act of Congress to keep the Spurs in San Antonio?

With the team playing two games in Austin this season and Austin billionaire Michael Dell buying a 10 percent share of the team last year, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales worries it might, even as the Spurs’ owners have sought to reassure fans and local officials that they have no plans to move.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and there’s absolutely smoke,” the San Antonio Republican said.

“Look what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics,” Gonzales said of the now-Oklahoma City Thunder; or the San Diego Chargers or St. Louis Rams, both of which now call Los Angeles home.

“No one would ever imagine the Spurs would leave San Antonio, but what if they do?” Gonzales said. “Sometimes when we say it takes an act of Congress, sometimes we have to take that seriously.”

So Gonzales is filing legislation to stop any possible move up Interstate 35 for the Spurs, and to prevent other small market teams from ditching communities that have invested time, tears — and a whole lot of cash — in them.

His bill, The Strengthening Public Undertakings for Retaining Sports Act — or SPURS Act for short — would set up strict requirements for teams to relocate. A franchise would have to lose money for five years in a row, plus prove that its stadium is inadequate or that local governments are flouting its agreements with the team.

The legislation would require teams to give a year’s notice if they want to relocate, and it would allow local governments to veto the move. It would also force teams that do move to reimburse whatever financial assistance or incentives were provided to them, such as special tax incentives or arena financing. Local governments could sue teams for damages, as well.

[…]

The legislation comes after Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt in May wrote an open letter to fans seeking to ease months of suspicion that the team might be eyeing a move. The Spurs are under a non-relocation agreement with Bexar County that runs through 2032, but county commissioners have agreed to a one-year pilot program allowing the team to play “home” games in Austin and Mexico City.

The team has said it’s all part of an effort to broaden the fan base as attendance has plummeted amid a franchise record three-year playoff drought.

“We will keep making memories, together, inside of Bexar County,” Holt wrote.

Gonzales said he believes Holt, but worries about future owners. Dell buying a share of the team could be the first step toward building an ownership more open to a move, he said.

Some background reading on this if it’s all new to you. I don’t know if this bill makes any sense legally or economically, but if you want to find a non-partisan issue to support that might draw you some crossover voters, it would be hard to top a pro-Spurs-in-San-Antonio bill for a guy who represents a lot of their fanbase. Whatever happens to this – I will bet you $1 right now that it doesn’t get a committee hearing in this Congress – it’s a brilliant piece of politics.

Of course people are harassing the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office now

This is the world we live in.

Hate mail and calls are rushing into the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office after Sheriff Javier Salazar announced an investigation into how 48 South American migrants were “lured” onto a flight to Martha’s Vineyard.

A sheriff’s office spokesman said the agency received an influx of calls to both the dispatch and administrative offices, along with hateful emails.

He said precautionary measures will be taken for the safety of all personnel, as is done in any instance when the office receives “threats.”

On Monday, the sheriff said its organized crime division is working to determine what crimes were committed — possibly human trafficking — in Bexar County by a person who was paid a fee to recruit 50 migrants on Sept. 14 from the city’s Migrant Resource Center, 7000 San Pedro Ave.

Salazar said the migrants, many Venezuelan asylum-seekers, were preyed upon by someone from out of the state and offered jobs and a stay at a hotel in Massachusetts. Instead, they were shuttled onto two chartered jets for what was ultimately a photo opportunity, which the sheriff said was wrongdoing from a human rights perspective.

See here for some background. A reminder, in case anyone needs it, the people at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office who are answering the phones and maintaining their Facebook and Twitter pages are not the decision makers. Hurling racist abuse and violent threats at them is like threatening a McDonald’s cashier because the Shamrock Shake is not a year-round menu item. Not that you should ever hurl racist abuse or violent threats at anyone, of course. You are a terrible person if you do those things, and if the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office decided to make what you said public and/or arrest you for the threats, they would be entirely justified in doing so. Also, too, there may also be a Homeland Security/Justice Department investigation of the DeSantis debacle, so just stopping the Bexar County Sheriff won’t be enough. So there. TPM has more.

More on the DeLorean reboot company and its interesting legal history

Another prestige podcast in the making, I suspect.

Six months after DeLorean Motors Reimagined, the startup seeking to produce a new incarnation of the 1980s sports car, said it would put is headquarters in Texas, a lawsuit filed against the company has thrown a potential wrench in its gears.

In the lawsuit filed this month, Karma Automotive, based in Irvine, Calif., and owned by a Chinese conglomerate, alleges that DeLorean Motors Reimagined was created based on intellectual property that its founders stole while working for Karma.

While the plaintiff’s claims could be difficult to prove, the timing of DeLorean Motors’ founding in relation to its lead executives’ tenure at Karma could appear suspicious enough to compel attempts to negotiate a settlement, a legal expert said.

And that’s not the only red flag surrounding this DeLorean entity, which is intertwined with a similarly named Humble-based company — DeLorean Motor Co. — founded about 30 years ago with its own history of being sued over intellectual property claims. The Humble company’s claim to the DeLorean name is key to the two companies’ joint venture.

DeLorean Motors Reimagined, which located its headquarters to San Antonio, has a cloudy background to go with a somewhat muddled identify. It hasn’t disclosed information about its investors or working capital even as San Antonio and Bexar County officials granted the company more than $1 million in incentives and tax breaks,. And while DeLorean Motors Reimagined is incorporated separately from DeLorean Motor Co., the former generally identifies itself as the latter, such as on its website and in a Super Bowl ad that accompanied its launch.

So far, the only plans DeLorean Motors Reimagined has announced involve producing 88 models of its pricey Alpha5 coupe two years from now. Still, CEO Joost de Vries said the startup will soon become a publicly traded company.

It’s also not clear whether the combined DeLorean entity ever bought the intellectual property rights of John Z. DeLorean’s original 1970s-era company, although a 2014 settlement agreement has apparently shielded it from lawsuits.

See here and here for the background. At this point, I’d be leery about the prospect of any cars actually mike it off their production lines. But if they do, they will come with quite the backstory. Read the rest and see for yourself.

Three migrants sue Ron DeSantis

I’m venturing a little from the core mission of covering Texas politics, but this was too irresistible, and there is a Texas connection.

Three Venezuelan migrants flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials Tuesday after the firebrand Republican’s move to transport migrants to a Democrat-controlled state sparked national controversy and a criminal investigation.

The lawsuit alleges the migrants were tricked into traveling on the airplane with false promises of money, work, housing and food.

DeSantis and other officials “designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests,” the suit claims.

DeSantis sent the planes to Martha’s Vineyard last week, mimicking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s monthslong practice of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.

The suit alleges an elaborate scheme of unidentified individuals who lured migrants to travel on the planes. This included providing hotel rooms, McDonald’s gift cards, hundreds of dollars in cash and false promises of their ultimate destination. Migrants on the flight last week said a woman going by the name of Perla approached them outside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center and promised them jobs and shelter. Some said they were told they were going to Boston. But they arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, where local officials were caught off guard.

Republicans frequently refer to those taking the trips as “illegal immigrants,” but many of them are asylum-seekers who have been allowed to enter the country pending the outcome of their legal cases.

The suit says the unidentified individuals identified and targeted the migrants “by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”

The migrants are asking to be awarded damages, as well as an injunction blocking DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”

See here for a bit of background. To really appreciate the absurdity of all this, as well as to highlight the Texas connection, here’s Josh Marshall:

This new video of Ron DeSantis’s 10th explanation of who he was funding in Texas really has to be seen to be believed. (Video below.) He says that he can’t ship migrants from Florida, as the state legislature authorized money to do, because there aren’t enough migrants coming into the state. There’s no “mass movement”. It’s just one or two people at a time driving to Florida. There’s no way to deal with that efficiently because there aren’t enough people. (Needless to say, however people are entering the state, if the state is overrun you just pick them up locally.) But, he says, he has “intelligence” operatives in Texas and they have learned that from “30% to 40%” of migrants in Texas intend to come to Florida.

In other words, there’s a tidal wave of people apparently about to come. Just not yet. Follow? Good.

So what to do? The most efficient way to deal with this is to go to Texas, profile people who seem likely to later come to Florida and fly them to states run by Democrats. That means “the chance they end up in Florida is much less.”

I guess if you want to be really, really generous you might say that people might be less willing to get bamboozled into being flown north if they’re already in Florida where they want to be as opposed to in Texas. But I think it goes without saying that the cost and inefficiency of the DeSantis plan is great enough to eliminate any benefit. And also: if you hoodwink migrants into going to Boston they can also just get on a bus to go to Florida. San Antonio to Miami is almost as far as Boston to Miami.

The barbarity of DeSantis’s actions should not obscure the hilarity of what is clearly an after the fact explanation of what happened and why? We can be pretty confident that the reason he’s resorting to this explanation is because he really, really doesn’t want to discuss who he’s working with in Texas. What individuals? What activist groups? Again, the explanation is absurd on its face. There’s no mass migration of migrants into Florida. So to move them at scale you need to get them in Texas and send them north.

As Marshall put it on Twitter, the “logical next step for DeSantis is to lure people in Caracas on to planes &ship them to Boston to truly prevent them from getting to Florida.” We truly live in amazing times.

Do I think this is likely to ever see the inside of a courtroom, let alone get to a trial or settlement? No, I seriously doubt it will survive a motion to dismiss. But it at least has accomplished the task of putting some focus on just how deranged and inhumane this stunt was. And maybe, the more DeSantis talks, the better it will be for Sheriff Salazar’s investigation. Daily Kos and Vice News have more.

Ken Paxton keeps trying to kill the SAISD vaccine mandate

On brand, always on brand.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed another petition seeking to reverse a Bexar County judge’s decision that rejected the state’s bid for a temporary injunction to block the San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate.

Even though SAISD’S vaccine mandate remains on pause despite the court’s ruling in its favor, Paxton said he will “continue fighting for medical freedom.”

“Nobody should be bullied, coerced, and certainly not fired because of their COVID-19 vaccination status,” said Paxon in his announcement, adding the decision is not only an affront to individual liberty, but “illegal under Texas law.”

“The governor’s executive order specifically protects workers from the type of mass firings that San Antonio ISD is seeking, and I will continue to fight in court to defend GA-39 and Texans’ medical freedom,” he said.

The petition was filed Sept. 7 with the Texas Supreme Court.

An SAISD spokeswoman said in a statement that the vaccine mandate remains suspended and that no employee was ever disciplined for refusing to get the vaccine.

See here and here for the previous updates. There’s a recitation of the long history of this legal saga in the story if you want that. I remind you that this mandate was never enforced and remains on pause, not that these things matter to Ken Paxton. The appellate court ruling that Greg Abbott doesn’t have the power he claimed to have when he forbade these mandates seems pretty clear to me, but you never know what SCOTx will do. Now we wait to see if they’ll take this up.

Bexar County Sheriff to investigate the “immigrants lured to Martha’s Vineyard” saga

Good, because this whole thing is not only weird and creepy but it’s not hard to see how at least some aspects of it could have been illegal.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said Monday the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is opening an investigation into whether people who “lured” migrants onto planes to Martha’s Vineyard did so “under false pretenses.”

Two flights of migrants departed San Antonio’s Kelly Field last week and landed at the Massachusetts resort island. A 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant told the San Antonio Report a woman paid him to recruit other migrants for the flights, telling him the people would be sent to “sanctuary states.”

Some of the migrants who made the trip said they were promised jobs, English classes and housing, none of which materialized.

“What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people who are already on hard times, right?” Salazar said via a hastily called Zoom press conference.

“They are here legally in our country, they have every right to be where they are, and I believe they were preyed upon. Somebody … preyed upon these people, lured them with promises for a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken credit for the flights, saying, according to NPR, that the migrants who accepted the flights had been identified as wanting to relocate to Florida. The state has allocated $12 million “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida.”

None of the migrants who spoke to the San Antonio Report mentioned wanting to relocate to Florida or being asked whether they were planning to go to Florida. All said they were excited by the prospect of getting work.

Salazar said he believes there is a “high possibility” that Texas laws had been broken, and perhaps federal laws as well. “We will work with any and all agencies” that might also be investigating the incident, he said.

I don’t know what will come of this. If in the end this goes nowhere, it won’t surprise me. But the basic idea here is that these folks were transported across state lines under false premises, and that sounds awfully sketchy to me. There’s already been a lot of reporting and talk on Twitter about this – TPM has been on it and has cited the San Antonio Report a couple of times. There’s now a cash reward being offered to identify “Perla”, the person who initially approached the migrants with the false promises that led them to board the plane. I’ll be interested to see where this goes, that’s all I’m saying. And if there were laws broken along the way, sure seems to me that enforcing some consequences for that would have a bunch of salutary effects. NPR and the Trib have more.

Let’s name a few legislative battlegrounds

It’s getting to be that time of the election cycle.

Mihaela Plesa

Two years ago, Democrats were gearing up for a rare opportunity in modern times: capturing the Texas House majority.

But after they came up woefully short — and Republican-led redistricting reduced the number of competitive races — the battlefield heading into November is notably smaller.

Still, both sides see important stakes in the state House races this time around. While the majority is not on the line, the hottest races are unfolding in key areas that each party understands is critical to their growth for the next decade.

Look no further than the three districts that both Democrats and Republicans see as their highest priorities. Two of them are in South Texas, where Republicans are working to make inroads with Hispanic voters, while the other is in North Texas’ Collin County, a place emblematic of the fast-growing suburbs where Democrats have gained ground over the last few election cycles.

The GOP is especially serious about the two seats in South Texas — House District 37, a new open seat in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, and House District 118, a San Antonio-based seat that Republican John Lujan flipped last year in a special election. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works to elect Republicans to state legislatures, are announcing Monday that they are funding $360,000 in TV ads aimed at the two districts, a substantial opening salvo on the battlefield.

[…]

Millions of dollars are expected to pour in to HD-37 and HD-118 — the two South Texas seats — and then HD-70, the one in Collin County. President Joe Biden would have carried each of the three seats over Donald Trump in 2020, but only by margins of 2 to 11 points, which gives them battleground status in the current environment, according to operatives. HD-37, which Republicans rammed into the map overnight during redistricting, is the closest on paper, with a Biden margin of only 2 percentage points.

Lujan is easily the most endangered Republican incumbent, but a few others can be expected to have competitive races, including Reps. Steve Allison of San Antonio, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Angie Chen Button of Richardson. However, all three have had tough general elections before — especially Meyer and Button — and Republicans have faith in their ability to defend themselves.

There are also some additional open seats that the GOP will have to monitor, like the Houston seat where Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy is retiring.

On the Democratic side, the most endangered incumbent may be Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, who represents a massive district covering most of the Texas-Mexico border.

As for the issues, the GOP messaging is set to take on a national tone, seeking to tap into Biden’s deep unpopularity in Texas, especially on border security and inflation. The House Democratic Campaign Committee said its candidates are focusing on “good jobs, strong public schools and access to affordable health care.”

“In contrast, Republicans are obsessed with banning abortion with no exceptions and making sure anyone can carry a gun with no training or license,” an HDCC spokesperson, Stella Deshotel, said in a statement.

With the primaries over, candidates across the races are sounding notes of independence and bipartisanship. Mihaela Plesa, the Democratic nominee for HD-70, said in an interview it was important for representatives to go to Austin and “not just be another vote for the party line.” Her Republican opponent, Jamee Jolly, said she was optimistic she would appeal to the Biden voters in the district, which he would have carried by 11 percentage points.

“I think a lot of people chose Biden because they didn’t like the Republican option. I know that for a fact because I have friends who have said that,” Jolly said, adding that her friends found Trump “divisive” and that she would legislate as “much more of a convener, a solutions-seeker,” reaching across the aisle.

Plesa said the No. 1 issue she hears about is public school finance, along with concerns about the “social wars” that are erupting in the classroom. But she said she is also hearing a lot about abortion after the Roe v. Wade decision, which triggered a ban without exceptions in Texas. Jolly said that her focus is now on “how we continue to support maternal health care.”

First and foremost: San Antonio is not South Texas, and I will die on that hill. I am begging you to be more precise in your geographical descriptors.

Second, just to provide some perspective, here are the 2020 Biden/Trump numbers for all of the districts name-checked in this story:


Dist  Biden   Trump Biden% Trump%
=================================
037  27,740  26,576  50.6%  48.4%
070  45,111  35,989  54.7%  43.6%
074  31,415  28,538  51.7%  46.9%
108  54,481  55,364  48.9%  49.7%
112  44,881  45,370  48.9%  49.4%
118  36,578  34,584  50.6%  47.9%
121  50,133  52,533  48.1%  50.4%
133  40,475  42,076  48.4%  50.3%

Most of these districts got more Democratic between 2012 and 2020, often much more Democratic. HDs 37 and 74 are the exceptions in that list. You can go read that earlier post for all the context. HD70 is a current Republican district that was redrawn to be Democratic, whose incumbent is not running for re-election, and should be the most likely of the bunch to flip. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that if Dems don’t pick up HD70, it will have been a disappointing Election Day. It’s impossible to imagine a good overall result if the Republicans can hold that one. Republicans flipped HD118 in a low-turnout special election, which is a thing they had done before as well. Dems won it back that November, but HD118 was a more Democratic district in the previous map. Bexar County moved strongly Democratic overall last decade, though (Pre-redistricting) HD118 was at the bottom of the progress list. I also feel confident saying that Dems will be disappointed if they don’t take this one back.

Fundraising numbers are also a factor, and likely a reason some other relatively even districts were not mentioned in this Trib story. HD70 Dem candidate Mihaela Plesa has done pretty well, while HD118 candidate Frank Ramirez, who fell short in the runoff of that earlier special election, has done less so. I’ll want to take a look at the 30-day numbers in some of these races to see what other signals there may be.

I don’t want to get too deep into all this, as I don’t know much about these races beyond the numbers. I do believe that we will see a different, perhaps broader, class of contested races in 2024, partly because a lot of Republican seats were drawn with relatively tight margins, and partly because this year may tell us something new about the trends we have been seeing in the past three elections. There are always some districts that over- or under-perform their expected numbers, and this time should be no exception.

DeLorean reboot company hit with intellectual property lawsuit

Here’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming.

Mere months after the city and county coughed up nearly $1.1 million in incentives to attract the revamped DeLorean Motor Co., the venture has been hit with a lawsuit alleging its founders engaged in intellectual property theft.

A suit filed in federal court in Houston accuses four former employees of California-based electric car maker Karma Automotive of stealing design and engineering information to launch their venture resurrecting the ’80s-era DeLorean sports car as an electric vehicle.

In its petition, Karma Automotive maintains that four of its employees were assigned to an initiative dubbed “Project 88,” which aimed to electrify the original DeLorean DMC-12 popularized by the Back to the Future film franchise.

The suit names current DeLorean CEO Joost de Vries, Chief Operating Officer Alan Yuan, Chief Marketing Officer Troy Beetz and Vice President Brand and Creative Neilo Harris as those employees and asks the court to stop their use of Karma’s technology. The pleading also seeks monetary damages.

While DeLorean officials didn’t respond to the Current’s request for comment, de Vries did offer the following comment to the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the suit: “This car has a very specific, unique DeLorean lineage that has no relation to Karma Automotive from a design, engineering, supply chain or manufacturing perspective. We remain committed to the future of our company.”

The suit accuses de Vries and the three other former Karma employees of hiding information on their plans for the DeLorean from executives while they were still on staff.

“They actively concealed information from Karma to keep Karma from pursing the project or from finding out what [the] individual defendants were doing,” the legal filing reads. “Then, one by one, they left Karma.”

According to the suit, the defendants conspired to quit Karma Automotive after executives began questioning the viability of the project due to the lack of details provided by the former employees working on the vehicle.

“Within Karma, concerns were raised among Karma’s executives that [the] individual defendants’ proposals for Project 88 were not sufficiently detailed and raised open questions,” the petition reads. “[The] individual defendants repeatedly promised to provide additional details and information, but failed to do so.”

See here for the background. That Express News story is paywalled, so this is the best I can do. I blogged about the origin of the San Antonio-based DeLorean reboot because who doesn’t love a good homage to a classic 80s movie. I don’t know how closely I’ll follow this part of it, but I’m sure there will be an update or two at some point in the future. Texas Public Radio has more.

This is why elections administrators are under attack

What a lousy thing to do right now.

Harris County’s new elections administrator has not taken office yet, but the Harris County GOP is already trying to shape his reputation.

On Wednesday, State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted an image of records showing Clifford Tatum has a federal tax lien of more than $100,000. Bettencourt questioned Tatum’s ability to run the office based on his tax records. According to the tweet, the records were obtained July 5, the date Tatum’s selection was announced.

The Internal Revenue Service filed the $108,209 lien against Tatum last October.

In response to Bettencourt’s tweet, Tatum said in a statement: “This is a personal tax matter and not related to my career as an elections administrator. I have been in touch with the IRS and expect the matter to be resolved by the end of the year. I have been a public servant for over 20 years and my personal life has never impacted my professional career.”

Tatum was selected by a unanimous vote of the five-member Harris County Election Commission in July.

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel was the only person on the five-member Harris County Election Commission to vote against final approval of Tatum, which could not be completed until after he had established residency in Harris County. The commission met briefly to take the vote and adjourned in under 10 minutes.

“Why did the four Democrats on the Election Commission shut down debate on this yesterday?” Siegel said in a statement on Wednesday. “Why didn’t the recruiter do their job and disclose issues with Mr. Tatum’s background before the original offer was voted on? I’ve been asking the paid recruiter and the county attorney’s staff about this for a month.”

In response, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee issued a statement: “The interview, offer, and selection process for the new elections administrator was thorough and all members of the Elections Commission participated. Mr. Tatum’s experience speaks for itself, and I look forward to working with him.”

See here for the background. Personal tax issues are standard fodder in election campaigns, mostly for the purpose of casting someone as untrustworthy or irresponsible. This isn’t an election, though, it’s a job application, and and having a personal tax issue is generally not an obstacle to getting hired. If there’s evidence that Tatum was dishonest about this to the recruiter and/or the Commission, then bring it forward and we can evaluate that. If not, if he answered honestly any questions he might have been asked about this, then it’s not that much different than telling me he’s got a big unpaid balance on his credit cards. Not great from a personal finance perspective, but not relevant to the job he’s been hired to do.

Also, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re out there being a big public supporter of Ken Paxton and The Former Guy, dismissing all criticism as mere partisan attacks, I’m not very likely to take seriously your complaints about some other guy’s back taxes. We all love throwing the word “hypocrisy” around, but maybe try a little self-awareness. I’m just saying.

And look, while no public servant is above criticism or having their conduct scrutinized, now is maybe not the best time to be pointing and screaming at election officials for things that have nothing to do with running elections. Election officials around the country and right here in Texas are besieged by violent threats and harassment from the people that Paul Bettencourt is talking to when he says this stuff. Someone is going to get attacked, even killed, if this keeps up. Could you maybe refrain from throwing gas on the fire for a little while? Is that so damn much to ask?

Here’s hoping we’ll have fewer mail ballot rejections in November

Counties are taking the problem seriously, which is a good start.

The statewide rejection rate [for mail ballots] was more than 12 percent in the primary — six times what it was in the last midterm year in 2018. By the primary runoffs, the rate was down to less than 4 percent rejected, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Ahead of the November general elections, a number of elections officials say they have found a simple fix — a brightly colored insert that arrives with mail ballots, explaining the new requirements and showing the easily forgotten space under the flap of the return envelope where the voter’s ID number needs to be printed.

[Bexar County Election Administrator Jacqui] Callanen said the insert is small enough and positioned in such a way that it will likely fall to the floor when voters open the mail ballot packet, so they can’t miss it. She said her office used the inserts in May primary runoff elections and saw immediate results.

“We had under a 1 percent reject rate,” Callanen said. “We were back to where we belonged, which was a dance of joy.”

Other large counties saw similar success with including physical reminders in ballot materials. Those counties may hold the answer for still-struggling counties like Harris to improve their own rates.

Harris County did not include a notice with May primary runoff ballots and reported a rejection rate of 7.7 percent in the Republican primary and 5.9 percent in the Democratic primary. Overall, out of 34,124 ballots cast; 2,294 were rejected.

While those rates were down from the sky-high 20 percent and 18 percent rates in the Republican and Democratic primaries respectively, they were still far higher than the county’s less than 0.3 percent rejection rate in the last midterm primary in 2018, when just 135 ballots were tossed.

[…]

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the inserts “appeared to make a difference.” Taylor said elections officials across the state learned about the inserts and other best practices during an election law seminar the agency held at the beginning of this month.

Following the success of inserts in other parts of the state, Harris County election officials said this week they are including a new insert about voter ID requirements with their mail ballot applications, and adding voter ID information to an existing insert with mail ballots, for November’s general election.

In addition to an insert, Harris County interim elections administrator Beth Stevens said the county will redesign its mail ballot envelope, highlighting the space for the voter’s ID with a red box, in the same way the space for the signature is highlighted.

They will also educate voters through paid advertising and in-person community meetings and will put more resources into identifying ballots that need corrections, she said.

“We have increased our vote-by-mail team’s staffing level to account for the new requirements of SB1,” Stevens said, “which includes additional folks to answer phones, to answer voters’ questions, as well as people to handle vote-by-mail cures, either done online or in person.”

You know me and mail ballot rejections. We’ve talked about the design of the ballot and the envelope as a way of giving voters a hand in ensuring they fill in all the right data, and I’ve singled out Bexar County for being ahead of the curve. I’m more than happy to see Harris County start to catch up in this department. I’m reasonably optimistic that counties have taken adequate steps to really mitigate this issue.

I also want to point out that in a world where we absolutely had to have these new requirements, it would have been far better for there to have been a seminar like the one Sam Taylor from the SOS office describes well before the first election subject to those requirements, not four months after the first one and with two others in between. The Legislature gets the lion’s share of the blame for that – they simply didn’t care about the negative effects of the new law – but the SOS deserves some criticism for not pushing back hard enough. There’s nothing we can do now about the ballots that got rejected for no good reason. I just hope we’ve learned enough from this painful experience to minimize those losses going forward.

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

SAISD vaccine mandate upheld again

Also still on hold, but the state loses again at the appellate level.

A state appellate court upheld San Antonio Independent School District’s authority Wednesday to mandate its workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, almost a year after the district instituted the requirement for all staff to help stem the spread of the virus.

The 4th Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to overturn a Bexar County judge’s decision not to grant the state a temporary injunction to block the staff vaccine mandate. Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court issued that ruling in October, allowing SAISD to continue enforcing the mandate.

The court also ordered that the costs of the appeal be assessed against the state.

Paxton filed a lawsuit against SAISD in September, after first suing the district over the mandate in August because the vaccine had not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The August lawsuit was dropped after the FDA approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The lawsuit has wound its way through the state court system over the past year. Paxton’s office appealed Alvarez’s ruling to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the appellate court temporarily block the mandate while it considered Paxton’s appeal. The attorney general then requested the state Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did in mid-October.

The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling forced SAISD to stop enforcing the mandate while the 4th Court of Appeals considered the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that Alvarez denied.

[…]

Paxton’s lawsuit argued that SAISD’s vaccine mandate violated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting governmental entities from implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which the governor claimed he had the authority to do under the Texas Disaster Act. Attorneys for SAISD challenged that reasoning, contending the Act does not give the governor the power to suspend all state laws.

Wednesday’s ruling by the 4th Court of Appeals determined that the Texas Disaster Act does not give Abbott the authority to suspend parts of the Education Code that allow school districts to issue vaccine mandates.

“The Texas Disaster Act expressly limits the Governor’s commander-in-chief authority to state agencies, state boards, and state commissions having emergency responsibilities,” the ruling states. “The District is not a state agency, a state board, or a state commission. Rather, the Texas Disaster Act defines the District as a ‘local government entity.’”

See here for the previous update. This sounds like a solid ruling, one that SCOTx ought to uphold, though who knows what they’ll actually do. It would also be written on sand to some extent, in that if the Republicans retain full control of government next year they’ll just amend the Texas Disaster Act to make it cover school districts and/or explicitly exclude anything having to do with vaccinations. In the meantime, even though the policy remains on hold during the litigation, it’s surely the case that the mandate got some holdouts vaccinated during the period while it was in effect. That will always be a win, no matter what happens from here.

Bexar County raises its COVID threat level

Hopefully not a sign of things to come.

Local health officials raised San Antonio’s COVID-19 risk level to high this week after warning of a “silent surge” just two weeks ago.

That surge continues, according to data from the city’s Metropolitan Health District, which is documenting an increase in new cases and hospitalizations.

As the July Fourth holiday approaches, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District chief Claude Jacob urged folks who will be getting together with friends and family to follow COVID-19 prevention strategies: “mask up in crowded indoor places, get tested if you have been exposed or have symptoms and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.”

Dr. Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer at University Health, said the curve is starting to rise again, “but it’s not as steep an increase. It doesn’t look like the previous waves, not yet, so I think we have to wait and see how that turns out.”

The actual number of COVID-19 cases are suspected to be much higher than what is officially reported, as most people aren’t reporting positive home tests to any health authority.

Metro Health does not collect at-home test data, a spokeswoman said. Some rapid test kits include a way to report results through a mobile app, she noted, and urged everyone who uses a self-test to report positive results to their healthcare provider.

Alsip echoed Metro Health’s prevention strategies, noting that most people have stopped wearing masks. “Now that we know that the data support this high level [of transmission], while we’re in that higher risk timeframe, it would be a good additional layer of protection.”

He also warned that COVID-19 can now include a constellation of symptoms beyond the fever, cough and shortness of breath that characterized the disease at the beginning of the pandemic.

For the record, Harris County is still at Moderate threat level. Given the viral load in Houston’s wastewater these days, it’s not hard to imagine it going up. They key metric is hospitalizations, and that at least has remained at a sufficiently moderate level. It’s still the case that everyone needs to be vaxxed and boosted – kids under the age of five can now get vaccinated, and it looks like we’re getting an Omicron-specific booster later this year – and masking in indoor public places as well as anytime you may feel ill are still necessary. City and county governments can’t do much beyond exhort you to do the civic-minded thing, and for that matter the feds are pretty limited thanks to a bunch of sociopathic court rulings, so this is where we are. Do your part, if only for yourself, and we can make this be less bad than it otherwise would be.

DAs are not going to be able to avoid enforcing anti-abortion laws

I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not how it works.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, local prosecutors in several of the largest Texas counties vowed not to file criminal charges in abortion-related cases, seemingly offering hope for those seeking a way around the state’s impending abortion ban.

But those counties are unlikely to serve as abortion safe havens in post-Roe Texas, legal experts and abortion rights advocates say, largely because clinics still face the threat of legal retribution even in counties with sympathetic district attorneys. And the penalty for those who continue offering the procedure is steep — up to life in prison and at least $100,000 in fines under Texas’ so-called trigger law, which will soon outlaw nearly all abortions, starting at fertilization.

While Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot unilaterally prosecute criminal cases unless authorized by a local prosecutor, he is free to do so for civil matters anywhere in Texas. That means district attorneys may shield clinics and physicians from the trigger law’s criminal penalty of a first- or second-degree felony, but Paxton could still target them for six-figure civil fines, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.

She also noted that abortion providers could be found criminally liable if an incumbent district attorney reconsiders or is replaced by a successor who wants to pursue abortion-related charges.

The trigger law, which takes effect 30 days after a Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade, makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, nor for severe fetal abnormalities. It carries narrow exemptions for abortion patients placed at risk of death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Still, some prosecutors could begin pursuing criminal charges immediately based on Texas statutes that pre-dated Roe but were never repealed by the Legislature, Paxton said Friday. Those laws prohibit all abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”

In any case, it’s unlikely that abortion providers will take the risk. They are already bound by the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows people anywhere in the country to sue providers or those who help someone access the procedure in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Successful litigants win damages of at least $10,000 under the law.

We’ve discussed this before. There are things that cities and individuals can do to hinder law enforcement or prosecutorial efforts to enforce anti-abortion laws, but one way or another they are going to be enforced, very likely via increasingly intrusive and draconian means. If somehow local DAs refuse to pursue cases, the Lege will change the law to go around them, either to the Attorney General or to neighboring counties – Briscoe Cain is already planning to file bills to that effect. We can’t succeed at this level. The only way to fight it is to have power at the state level, and that’s going to mean winning statewide races and/or winning enough seats in the Lege to take a majority in the House. Even that is at best a defensive position – we are not taking over the Senate, not even in the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine – but it’s the best we can do, and it would definitely reduce the harm that is otherwise coming.

One more thing:

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also slammed the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the “criminalization of reproductive health will cause great harm to women in America.” While she added that “prosecutors and police have no role in matters between doctors and patients,” she stopped short of a blanket vow to not prosecute alleged violations of state abortion laws.

“As in every case, we will evaluate the facts and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Ogg, a Democrat.

I’m including this because as far as I can tell it’s the first time Ogg has spoken publicly about the coming anti-abortion enforcement wave. I seriously doubt that Kim Ogg will want to pursue any cases that are filed with her office, but I also doubt that she’ll just ignore them. Maybe she’ll take a broad “prosecutorial discretion” stance, but again, if she does and if nothing changes with the November elections, that discretion will be taken away from her. There just isn’t much she or anyone in her position can do about this. We need to be clear about that.

There was definitely an improvement in mail ballot acceptance for the primary runoffs

The last time I looked, I was largely unable to find any news stories about mail ballots and their rejection rates for the May primary runoff elections, with the exception of one story about Bexar County and how they were leading the field in getting rejection rates down to something akin to pre-SB1 levels. I still can’t find any stories about this, but it (finally) occurred to me that the new reconciliation reports that election officials now have to publish would contain the data I’m looking for. So with that in mind, off I went. I obviously don’t have the time to go looking everywhere, and some of those smaller county elections webpages are just awful, but I did have a look at a few places of interest.

Harris County, Democratic: 19,081 total mail ballots, of which 1,128 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 5.9%.

Harris County, Republican: 15,053 total mail ballots, of which 1,169 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 7.8%

That’s a clear improvement of the 20% rejection rate from March and the 12% rejection rate of the May special election. It’s still too high, but it’s not take-your-breath-away too high. And it pleases me no end to see Republicans have a harder time with it than Democrats. It’s unlikely to be enough to matter if that’s still the case in November, but it would be a rich piece of karma if more of their votes got tossed as a result of this malicious law.

Bexar County, Democratic: 11,919 total mail ballots, of which 15 (yes, fifteen) were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.1%.

Bexar County, Republican: 5,856 total mail ballots, of which 33 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Bexar is definitely the gold standard, the example for everyone else to emulate. And Dems did better here as well. Encouraging.

Travis County, cumulative: 10,224 total mail ballots, of which 222 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 2.2%.

Not all counties broke this out by party. The overall rate is low enough here to not sweat it too much. About 75% of the mail ballots overall were Democratic, so it’s likely that the Dem rejection rate was right around 2.2% – the Republican rate could have been a lot different without affecting the total too much.

Dallas County, cumulative: 10,708 total mail ballots, of which 176 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 1.6%.

Like Travis County, but slightly fewer rejections. Dems cast a bit less than 70% of the mail ballots.

Montgomery County, cumulative: 4,366 total mail ballots, of which 25 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Republicans knew what they were doing here. They were 70% of mail ballots.

Fort Bend County, cumulative: 4,382 total mail ballots, of which 187 were rejected, for a 4.3% rejection rate.

Closest one yet to Harris. About two thirds of mail ballots were Democratic. Would have been nice to see the breakdown by party here.

Cameron County, Democratic: 1,323 total mail ballots, of which 3 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.3%.

Cameron County, Republican: 292 total mail ballots, of which 2 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.7%.

Wow.

So it’s clear there was a lot of improvement, and while Harris did a much better job there’s room for us to do better as well. It’s also important to remember that there are still a huge number of people who have not yet tried to vote by mail, so there’s no guarantee that the improvements will continue or be maintained. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least it looks like that work will have a payoff.

(PS – Not all counties had the reconciliation reports in a place that I could find. I looked for them for El Paso and Tarrant and came up empty. Might have just been me, but maybe their site design needs some work.)

When we had more deaths than births in Texas

Seems like that would be a bad thing.

In the midst of the nation’s deadliest pandemic, Texas recorded more births than deaths every month since 2016 — with one exception.

Provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that January 2021 was the only month when, statewide, the number of deaths was greater than the number of births.

Nine months before in April 2020, the world was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths from COVID-19 peaked in Texas, according to The New York Times, and vaccines had just become available to select groups of individuals.

Twenty counties — including Bexar County — recorded more births than deaths every month until the pandemic, when they began having months with more deaths than births.

The number of births for a county is determined by the mother’s residence.

Thirty one counties — including more populous ones like Harris, Dallas and Travis — always recorded more births than deaths, even during the pandemic.

Five counties — Bowie, Kerr, Potter, Smith, and Wichita — reported more deaths than births for all 22 months of pandemic data available.

There are charts and maps in the story, and they calculate the birth and death rates on a per 100K people basis to make everything more easily comparable. One thing the story doesn’t go into, which is a thing that has been widely reported on elsewhere, is differences in voting patterns across the counties. I’m not going to dive into all of the data here, but I will note this much about those five counties that had a net loss (not counting migrations) for each month:

Bowie – Trump 70.9%
Kerr – Trump 75.3%
Potter – Trump 68.5%
Smith – Trump 69.0%
Wichita – Trump 69.7%

You get the picture.

A better mail ballot

I’m glad someone’s working on this.

After thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected in Texas’ statewide primaries in March, election officials and voting rights groups are stepping up efforts to make sure voters don’t run into the same problems with ballot rejections going forward.

Nearly 25,000 mail ballots were rejected for the March 1 primaries — a far higher rate than prior elections.

Some ballots were rejected because identifying data didn’t match what was on file. But election officials and voting groups say a design issue with the envelope that Texas voters use to return their mail ballots was most responsible for the rejections.

Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says voters missed important instructions located right under the flap of the mail ballot return envelope. That is where voters have to provide either a partial Social Security number or their driver’s license number.

“Voters wouldn’t see [the section] if the flap is down,” she says. “It’s only visible if the flap is up. And the reason behind that was to keep it secret so people couldn’t get that [information] when it was going through the mail.”

Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications with the Texas secretary of state’s office, says election officials are also convinced that the new voter ID field on the envelope is what led to mass rejections.

“Based on the number of people who just missed it completely, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to think that some people thought it was just an optional section,” Taylor says.

A lot of these changes were prompted by a voting law Republican state leaders enacted last year. Taylor says that among the changes, more information was required to be on the return envelope. That affected the envelope’s design.

“There’s more language that’s required, and as a result there is more language and text competing for the same amount of real estate,” he says.

Just so we’re clear, this is the Assistant Secretary of State for Communications confirming that the Republican voter suppression law did in fact suppress votes by making the process sufficiently confusing that thousands of regular voters cast ballots that had to be rejected. They could have ameliorated this problem by delaying implementation of the law until 2023, which would have given the SOS and county officials enough time to design a better mail ballot (which includes the envelope and any supplemental materials) as well as giving the SOS enough time to properly communicate the changes and anything else that county officials needed to know. But they didn’t, and this was the result. Again, I just want to be clear on that.

Chimene says the League of Women Voters of Texas has been working with the Center for Civic Design to create a pamphlet for Texas voters that breaks down everything they need to do to make sure their ballot is counted.

“And that involved simplifying the words and using images and graphics and using bolding and other methods that they specialize in to make voter information that makes sense,” Chimene says.

The plan is to get county election officials to include these pamphlets with vote-by-mail materials. Chimene says hopefully their easy-to-read guides will clear up any confusion.

I certainly hope that county election officials pay heed to this. I continue to maintain that the Texas Democratic Party, the county parties, the candidates and elected officials and affiliated groups and so on, also had and have a responsibility to communicate to their voters what they need to know and do to vote by mail. This is just too important to leave to anyone else, even if it is their job.

The good news is that we know that making changes like this can work, because Bexar County has proven it.

The mail ballots of Bexar County voters in the primary runoff are being returned at a significantly lower rate when compared to the March primary election earlier this year.

About one in five mail ballots for the March Primary were being rejected by the elections office under rigorous new standards set by the Texas Legislature under SB1, the state’s new controversial voting law. However, as of the day before the May primary runoff election, the rejection rate has dropped to less than 1% according to the Bexar County Elections Administrator.

About 16,000 mail ballots have been received by the office so far and the rejection rate is drastically lower than the 22% seen in March.

“The rejection rate for the Democrats is 0.9% and the rejection rate for the Republicans is 0.4% so we are genuinely thrilled,” said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen.

There are twice as many Democratic Primary ballots that have been received compared to Republican Primary ballots, Callanen added.

[…]

In March, out of the 18,000 ballots received, about 4,000 were rejected.

After that, Callanen said her office made adjustments.

“Just from looking at the raw numbers right now, it looks like it worked,” she said.

That included an insert that was in both English and Spanish.

“We came up with an insert to put in there to assist the voters so they don’t miss on the envelopes with the very tiny print that they need to put on their (Texas Drivers License), or the last four of your social, so we are really excited and now at this point now we’re looking forward to November,” she said.

Another adjustment was increasing the font size on the envelope relating to the new SB1 requirements.

“What we basically did was, we took the area under the flap with all the legalese and we blew it up,” she said referring to the font size which she said was boosted to 12 point font.

We’ve discussed the Bexar County success story before, and I will bang the drum for their example again. I will also note that even within that, there’s room for improvement on the Dem side, which is why it’s important for the Texas Democratic establishment to take their own initiative. I can’t say this often or loudly enough: It is too important to do anything less.

These were the stories I found when I did my latest Google News search for mail ballot rejections. We should have final vote canvasses on Tuesday, so maybe we’ll get some numbers – and some reporting – from other counties as well. I will follow up and let you know.

Runoff results: Around the state

After the primary, I rounded up the Democratic runoffs we’d have in May. I’m going to use that post to round up the results from last night, as best as I can tell as of when I gave up the ghost and went to bed. I started filling this in around 10 PM.

Statewide Dem

Lite Guv – Mike Collier vs Michelle Beckley.
AG – Rochelle Garza vs Joe Jaworski.
Comptroller – Janet Dudding vs Angel Vega.
Land Commissioner – Sandragrace Martinez vs Jay Kleberg.

Garza and Dudding were both up 61-39 as of 9:30 PM, with Garza being declared the winner. Collier (54.8 – 45.2) and Kleberg (52.2 – 47.8) were leading but it was too soon to say with them. Kleberg was up 62-38 in Harris County, and Collier was up 60-40, so that bodes well for them.

Congressional Dem

CD01 – JJ Jefferson vs Victor Dunn.
CD15 – Ruben Ramirez vs Michelle Vallejo.
CD21 – Claudia Zapata vs Ricardo Villarreal.
CD24 – Jan McDowell vs Derrik Gay.
CD28 – Rep. Henry Cuellar vs Jessica Cisneros.
CD30 – Jasmine Crockett vs Jane Hope Hamilton.

Jefferson (75%), Zapata (62%), and Crockett (75%) all had huge leads and were on their way to victory. Henry Cuellar (52.75 – 47.25) had a smaller lead but looked to be in pretty good shape. The other two races were ridiculously close – Ramirez was up by 78 votes, McDowell up by 20 votes. You’ll want to check them again today, and don’t be surprised if they wind up in recount territory.

SBOE Dem

SBOE1 – Melissa Ortega vs Laura Marquez.
SBOE2 – Victor Perez vs Pete Garcia.

Ortega (58%) and Perez (56%) looked to be in good shape.

State Senate Dem

SD27 – Morgan LaMantia vs Sara Stapleton-Barrera. LaMantia was at 57% and appeared to be in good shape.

State House Dems

HD22 – Joseph Trahan vs Christian Hayes.
HD37 – Ruben Cortez vs Luis Villarreal
HD70 – Cassandra Hernandez vs Mihaela Plesa.
HD76 – Suleman Lalani vs Vanesia Johnson.
HD100 – Sandra Crenshaw vs Venton Jones.
HD114 – Alexandra Guio vs John Bryant.

Lalani (64%), Jones (70%), and Bryant (62%) looked to be headed to victory. Lalani would be the first Muslim to serve in the Lege. Jones is openly gay and HIV positive and was the subject of a bizarre homophobic rant by his opponent, so his win is especially sweet. Bryant, who is 75 and served in Congress 30 years ago, wins one for the old white guys.

As of 10 PM, the other races were too close to call, with Hayes (50.86%), Villarreal (52.44%), and Plesa (52.91%) holding the advantage.

Republicans

Ken Paxton easily beat George P. Bush, which launched multiple (likely written in advance) eulogies to the “Bush dynasty” in Texas. Good riddance, if P is what that had fallen to. Dawn Buckingham (Land Commissioner) and Wayne Christian (RR Commissioner) were also cruising to victory.

UPDATE: All of the Dem statewide candidates that were leading when I signed off won. Michelle Vallejo (50.1%) edged ahead in CD15, while Jan McDowell (51.15%) increased her lead. It got super tight towards the end, but yes, Henry Cuellar (50.2%) once again came out ahead. All of the state office candidates that were leading last night were still ahead this morning.

Hey look! Some info about mail ballots in the May election!

It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the second time in less than two weeks, Texans are heading back to the polls to decide on a host of statewide and local elections.

Voters are deciding who should come out on top in primary runoff elections. However, issues with election counting in Harris County have led to some frustration, but some widespread issues of the past may be corrected during this primary runoff.

“So far it’s been a really busy day, we’re really pleased with the turnout,” Nadia Hakim, Deputy Director of Communication and Voter outreach for Harris County elections said.

[…]

Those voting by mail are reminded by officials to complete the identification fields to avoid the ballot being rejected.

“So what we saw during March 1st was a high rate of rejection for mail ballots. Of course, it was our first large election with SB1 put into place and unfortunately, we saw a similar trend for the May 7th election. It was about a 20 percent rejection rate again,” Hakim said.

Voters are urged to contact the Harris County election office with any questions regarding issues they may face at 713-755-6965.

Disappointing, but not surprising. I have mentioned speaking with the elections office a couple of times, and this was something I inquired about as well. At a closer look, the rejection rate for the May 7 election was closer to 15% than 20% as cited in the story, but still too high and almost as high as it had been in March. As we’ve discussed, the people who voted in the May election likely included a lot of people who hadn’t voted in March, so this was their first experience with the new voter suppression law. The statewide rate of mail ballot rejection from March was about 12-13%, and it was about 19% in Harris County. I still want to know what the statewide rate was for the May election, and of course I care a lot about what it will be for the runoff, where there should be a greater percentage of voters who now do know what to do.

I will have more questions about this for after the runoff, but in the meantime I came across this story from Bexar County, which is my nominee for the cutting edge leader in doing this right.

After a rocky first election under new requirements for voting by mail, Bexar County Elections officials are celebrating a sharp decline in rejection of mail ballots.

Though more Bexar County voters voted by mail in the May 7 election than had in the Mar. 1 primary, the preliminary mail ballot rejection rate of 3% was far lower than the 21.7% that left thousands of ballots uncounted two months earlier.

[…]

“Those [March] numbers – it was a tragedy. It was personal. It was personal to us. Everything is personal to us,” said Elena Guajardo, a mail clerk for the Bexar County Elections Department.

Trying to avoid a repeat of the issues in the primary, Bexar County Elections officials highlighted the new requirement on the elections department website ahead of the May 7 election.

They also included an informational insert in every mail ballot, alerting voters to the new ID requirement and recommended writing both numbers, in case one of them wasn’t linked to their voter registration.

Their efforts appear to have paid off.

“We had a success story in this election,” said Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen, who previously said a typical election would “probably” have a 2% to 3% rejection rate.

That story was from May 13, before the official canvass and the deadline for curing deficient ballots, so the numbers may have changed a bit. Regardless, this is damned impressive. Some of it was just learning from the initial experience and being able to be prepped from day one, which was not the case in March due to slowness in providing information by the Secretary of State, and part of it is clearly this strategy of pointing the voters in the right direction up front. Bexar County was talking about this at the time, and now that we can see how well it worked, every other county should look to emulate them. It’s a pain that they have to do this, but it is what it is. Kudos to Bexar County for showing the way.

Debtors’ court

This is not good.

In this court and others in Bexar County, debt collection lawsuits more than doubled from 2012 to 2020.

“I’m trying to manage this behemoth, but there are some guidelines I have to follow as well,” said Roger “Rogelio” Lopez Jr., justice of the peace for Bexar County Precinct 4, who operates out of the Loop 410 courthouse.

Similar scenes are playing out from Houston to Dallas to Fort Worth as debt collectors sue a skyrocketing number of Texans over claims of unpaid credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other debts, a Houston Chronicle examination has found.

Debt collection lawsuits filed statewide have exploded by 73 percent from 2012 to 2021, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the Texas Office of the Court Administration.

For the first time in history, the 374,000 debt lawsuits filed in the Lone Star State last year made up nearly half of all civil cases in Texas, which include traffic tickets, landlord evictions and small claims such as disputes between neighbors. The crush of debt cases raises concerns that overwhelmed Texas civil courts can’t adequately review each lawsuit and deliver justice while juggling higher-priority cases, consumer advocates say.

That means judges face pressure to move debt lawsuits quickly to keep their dockets manageable. With only minutes to review cases, judges can miss important details, consumer advocates say. The rapid-fire justice puts a sharp focus on whether defendants can get a fair shake, said Mary Spector, professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Any public perception that the courts are merely rubber-stamping for the creditors is bad for the system,’’ said Spector, who directs a law clinic that works on behalf of consumers in debt litigation.

Texas adopted key provisions that have spurred debt collectors to crank out more cases in recent years.

From 2012 to 2020, state lawmakers passed legislation that gave debt collectors more flexibility to file cases in justice of the peace courts, where filing costs are lower and it takes less time to move cases on the docket. The changes, which included actions by the Supreme Court of Texas to revamp the debt collection process in civil courts, ultimately made it cheaper and faster for debt collectors to win judgments, consumer advocates said.

The Supreme Court of Texas, which is responsible for adopting processes and rules to ensure that state courts are efficient and fair, has been alarmed by the rise in caseloads, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht told the Chronicle.

“You need to worry about it,” Hecht said. “This is where the public meets the justice system.”

To address those concerns, the Legislature ordered the state Supreme Court to publish new rules that will require debt collectors to provide additional notification to debtors of their rights, he said. The rules take effect May 1.

Big corporations have high-powered attorneys to manage their interests. When they have a problem, they can ask for help from the Supreme Court. Hecht said they also can lobby the Legislature to prompt changes in state law.

“But this is about the little guy,” he said. “What the justice system has to do is to provide justice for the people who come to it. We want everybody walking away from the court saying, ‘Well, thank God for the court. I may have lost, you know, I wish that had not happened, but I got a fair shake.’ That’s why it’s so important to work on these cases.”

A Chronicle review of dozens of court documents, observations of legal proceedings and an examination of statewide data found that:

  • Last year, 45 percent of lawsuits filed in the state’s civil courts were against Texans for debt, according to data supplied to the Chronicle by the Texas Office of the Court Administration, the state agency that collects the data and operates under the direction of the Supreme Court. In 2017, debt lawsuits represented 30 percent of all civil filings.
  • Harris County saw a similar trend. Last year, debt collectors filed nearly 68,000 lawsuits in the county, an increase of 111 percent from 2015.
  • Cases settled by default judgment have increased since 2012. That means more cases are decided with defendants not present to fight a claim, and the court cannot weigh both sides equally before making a judgment. The number of default judgments in the Houston region and other large Texas counties totaled nearly 74,000 cases in 2021, an increase of 86 percent from 2012.
  • No court in the state has seen a more dramatic increase in debt suits than justice of peace courts. JPs, as they are known, preside over weddings, misdemeanors and truancies. Many JPs are not lawyers. Of the hundreds of thousands of debt collection lawsuits filed in Texas in 2021, 80 percent were in JP courts.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. Hopefully, the new rules will help, but this seem like a much deeper issue than that. Obviously, a lot of this is societal – poverty, access to attorneys, the ability to take time off from work to attend court hearings, and so on – and there’s not much the courts can do about that. But they can do their part to make sure the playing field inside the courthouse is level, and they need to do that. And the Lege needs to revisit this as well.

May 2022 special election Day Four EV report: Checking in on the mail ballots

In my first look at early voting for the May special election, I noted the fairly large number of mail ballots that had been cast so far in Harris County and wondered if we would hear about mail ballot rejections as we had so much during the primaries. Maybe things are better, maybe they’re not. I did a little Google News searching yesterday to see if I could find any coverage of mail ballot rejections for this election. The first story I saw was from a month ago.

It’s been nearly one week since the Lubbock County Elections Office sent out mail-in ballots for the city and school board elections in May and some have already been rejected.

Some voters are forgetting to include their ID information underneath the flap of the mail-in ballot envelope, the same issue Lubbock County saw during the March primaries.

Changes to the Texas Election Code require voters to include ID information on their mail-in ballot envelope. It’s a change Lubbock County Elections Administrator Roxzine Stinson says voters aren’t quite used to. Lubbock County had an 11 percent rejection rate in the March primaries. For the election on May 7, voters are considering two constitutional amendments, city offices, and making decisions for the future of their schools. Stinson says this election’s rejection rate is higher so far, but she thinks that will change.

“This one right now, because we haven’t had a whole lot, it’s at about 18 percent. But as ballots come back and as we get those corrected, it won’t be that high. I know as we all get familiar with the processes, and especially the voters, the numbers will go down as far as rejection rate. And we’ve always had a fairly low one, so, it’ll get there. It’s just it’s something new and we’re all learning,” she said.

Stinson says you must remember to put either your driver’s license or last four digits of your social security number under the flap of your mail-in ballot envelope. She says to fill out the section, seal the envelope, sign it and then it’s ready to mail. If your ballot is rejected, the Elections Office will notify you to make changes.

“What happens at that point, we try to contact them. Our Signature Verification Committee will reach out by phone call, we may email. If we catch it in time before it goes to them, we will mail it back to you with a new envelope so you can correct that under the flap and just send it back,” Stinson said.

The city and school election envelopes are green on one side, so they can be distinguished from other election envelopes. If you still need to request a mail-in ballot, you have to include your ID information that matches what’s on your voter registration record. Stinson says to play it safe and write down both your driver’s license and social security info. If you need help, Stinson says to give the Elections Office a call at 806-775-1338.

After all the preparation that goes into holding an election, Stinson hates rejecting a ballot.

“That hurts, I’m going to be honest, that hurts. I’ve been here 18 years and we’ve worked so hard all that time, really trying to keep clean voter rolls and I think we have one of the cleanest in the state,” Stinson said.

I’m sure other election offices are going through similar things right now. The question, for which I still don’t have a good answer, is how or if things have changed since March. Certainly, there are people working on it, but change takes time.

After tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected for the March 1 primary election, advocates are raising concerns while seeing what they can do to avoid a repeat of this under the state’s new election security law that increased limits on mail-in voting.

[…]

AARP Texas Director Tina Tran said she was worried this means the votes of Texans 65-years-old and older were disproportionately tossed, since this group is traditionally the biggest percentage of voters who vote by mail.

“We do know of eligible voters who are able to vote by mail, voters 65 and older make up a huge percentage of those eligible. Those are our members. That’s our demographic. That’s who we fight for,” Tran said. “To see nearly 25,000 mail-in ballots rejected, I can glean from that it is a significant number of folks who are 65 and older. That’s why AARP is concerned. Of course, we have an interest in making sure people who want to vote are able to vote.”

Critics that included elections workers had raised alarms this could happen in the months leading up to the March 1 primary election.

[…]

Looking ahead, all eyes will be on the rejection rates for the May runoff election and November general election.

Tran said it will be on advocates and groups, like AARP Texas, to inform voters of the new measures that have thus far tripped up thousands of voters.

“Clearly, we have to step up our game. We’re not reaching certain people. There might be other trip-ups. One of the things we really need to pay attention to right now is why these ballots are getting rejected,” Tran said. “The numbers are deeply troubling. If we don’t change our strategy, if we don’t change our tactics, we could see numbers higher. Leading up to the general, if we get 12 % of mail-in ballots rejected, that’s a really significant number.”

From my perspective, it’s very much on the Texas Democratic Party, every county Democratic Party, and all of their affiliated clubs and organizations and volunteers as well. Remember, there are a whole lot of people who haven’t experienced the new law yet, and won’t until November. We have just a few months to get this right.

Election administrators are doing what they can as well.

As early voting in the May 7 election gets underway, Bexar County elections officials are taking steps to ensure they don’t have a repeat of the March 1 Primary elections in which nearly 22% of mail ballots were ultimately rejected.

This time around, every mail ballot is sent out with an informational insert reminding the voter about a new, ID number requirement that tripped up many people in the primary. That election was the first to be conducted under the requirements of the controversial state voting law, Senate Bill 1.

SB 1 requires voters to write an ID number associated with their registration on the outside of their mail ballot’s carrier envelope in a spot covered by the flap. Many either missed that requirement entirely, or wrote down the wrong number – writing in their driver’s license number, for example, when their registration was under their Social Security Number.

“It was like a tsunami,” Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said of the rejected ballots.

[…]

The Bexar County Elections Department is now including an insert in every mail ballot it sends out, Callanen said, reminding voters to include the required ID numbers – preferably both of them.

“We’re asking for both numbers because then we stand a better chance, depending on which one we have on file,” Callanen said.

The elections department website also includes detailed information on the changes to the mail ballots at the top of its main page.

Callanen is aiming for a rejection rate under 5% for the May 7 elections and says, so far, things are looking better.

That’s encouraging. I have not seen any reporting from Harris County yet, but hopefully there will be something soon. The HarrisVotes webpage has this FAQ about voting by mail that talks about the new requirements, but doesn’t explicitly say to put in both numbers. That’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

Anyway. The Day Four EV report is here. I’m not going to do any other comparisons as there’s not really anything to compare it to, but we do have 36,354 total votes cast so far, 14,951 in person and 21,403 by mail. At some point, maybe we’ll know how many tried and failed to vote by mail.

SCOTx declines to save Chick-fil-A

But they didn’t kill off the possibility of it being saved, either.

Conservative activists suing the City of San Antonio alleging it violated the Texas “Save Chick-fil-a” law have not presented evidence of a violation, the Texas State Supreme Court ruled Friday morning, as it sent the case back down to a trial court.

The case stems back to a 2019 city council decision to deny the chain’s request to open a restaurant at the San Antonio International Airport because of what a council member described as the company’s support for Christian groups with anti-LGBTQ agendas.

Later that year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law — Chick-fil-A cup in-hand — the bill that allows any individual to sue governments that have taken “adverse actions” against corporations due to their support for religious organizations.

A group of people from the San Antonio area, including a conservative activist and former council candidate Patrick von Dohlen, sued the city under the new law. They are represented by lawyer Jonathan Mitchell, a former state solicitor general who helped write the legislation and are backed by amicus briefs from 62 Republican state lawmakers and Abbott.

The justices said the plaintiffs did not “not allege sufficient facts” to sue a governmental body for official action. The court said actions taken before the law was in effect couldn’t be considered as violations of it, and past actions couldn’t be used to assume that the city would in the future violate the law.

“But, more importantly, we do not think the city’s March 2019 conduct standing alone permits a reasonable inference that there exists a “credible threat” of a post-September 1, 2019 adverse action against Chick-fil-A by the city,” the court’s ruling says. “Indeed, the contrary is true. Rather than assume the city would violate (the law), we presume the city would comply with (the law), until the contrary is shown.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the court’s decision, which is fairly technical but still pretty straightforward. The bottom line is that because the San Antonio Council decision to not go with Chick-fil-A was made six months before the dumb “Save Chick-fil-a” law was passed, the justices who joined the majority opinion ruled that the plaintiffs could not claim there was a violation of the law. They also did not accept the argument that the city would have violated the law had it been on the books at the time, which the two concurring justices asserted. They did overturn the appeals court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs should be allowed to make a live pleading with the law now in effect, but I suspect that will be a hollow victory. I say that based in part on the Court’s observation that the city likely would have complied with the law if it had existed at the time, and partly because of this footnote at the end of the decision:

Finally, we note this case may present another jurisdictional issue that has not yet been addressed and should be considered on remand: whether Chick-fil-A’s public statement that it is no longer interested in pursuing a space in the San Antonio airport renders the case moot.

I mean, maybe Chick-fil-A doesn’t want you to try to save it.

Also, too, was the issue of standing, which I noted for its proximity to the state lawsuits against SB8. As is its wont, the Court sidestepped the matter:

Because we hold that petitioners have not demonstrated a waiver of governmental immunity and should have the opportunity to replead, we decline petitioners’ invitation to address standing at this stage. Standing should be determined based on a plaintiff’s live pleading, and it would be premature for us to weigh in on the City’s standing arguments before petitioners have repleaded.

In other words, we’ll deal with it if they sue again. Never decide today what you can put off till tomorrow. Bloomberg and the San Antonio Report has more.

Divorce granted in common-law same-sex marriage case

Good result.

On March 24, a San Antonio jury returned a verdict in favor of Christopher Hoffman, a gay man who sought to prove a common law marriage existed since 1996 with his former partner, Moises Ortiz. The decision clears the way for Hoffman to legally divorce Ortiz and thus be eligible for alimony and other benefits .

Various judges have ruled a same-sex marriage existed before Obergefell vs. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. However, this is the first time a jury in Texas has made such a finding within the confines of a divorce action.

[…]

The four-day trial was held in the 285th District Court of Bexar County, with Judge Aaron Haas presiding, The twelve-person jury voted 10 to 2 in favor of Hoffman. They found the couple was married on February 14, 1996, and that grounds existed for the court to grant a divorce.

In an email to Out In SA, Hoffman’s attorney, Justin P. Nichols, wrote, “To have a jury validate that the couple’s relationship constituted a marriage meant a tremendous amount to Hoffman, who has been fighting for almost three years to have his marriage recognized. This case can have broad implications for thousands of gay couples throughout Texas.”

See here for the background. It is good news, and it should have a positive effect for other same sex couples. I doubt this would be appealed, so the precedent is now there. Given the continued opposition to same-sex marriage among Republicans, though, I would not be surprised to see a bill introduced in the next legislative session to try to overturn this. I hope I’m wrong, but don’t be shocked if it happens.

Bexar County looks for ways to reduce future mail ballot rejections

Good luck. I hope if they learn anything useful they share it with the rest of us.

Bexar County Commissioners on Tuesday directed local officials to come up with a plan to reduce the number of rejected mail-in ballots in upcoming elections after the county — and Texas — saw record high rejection rates in the March primary.

As many as 22% of mail-in ballots were rejected in Bexar County. Before the new election law took effect, the rejection rate was 2-3%, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen has said.

A statewide analysis by the Associated Press showed about 13% of mail ballots sent to election offices across Texas were thrown out for various errors, many tied to the new, stricter voting rules backed by Republican lawmakers.

“We want to get some feedback from our lawyers in terms of what we can and can’t do in terms of a public outreach campaign,” said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), who initiated the process that was approved by the court Tuesday. “The important thing is we want … their votes to count, we want it to be safe and secure.”

The county will have to walk a fine legal line in any awareness campaign, as public officials are now not allowed to promote voting by mail.

“We want to be within the confines of the law, but I think a thorough legal analysis will be helpful,” Rodriguez said.

The Bexar County Elections and District Attorney’s offices will make recommendations ahead of the November election, he said. That may involve hiring more election staff, a coordinated awareness campaign or other mechanisms that may require funding.

See here for the previous entry. Bexar County hopes to have something in place for the May elections, which makes sense. It is of course ridiculous that they have to consult their lawyers before they can attempt to pursue a voter education message – “easier to vote and harder to cheat”, my ass – but that’s where we are. As a reminder, private entities like the Bexar and Harris County Democratic Party can do this as well, without the bizarre legal restraints. I do believe that a concentrated wave of voter education can make a difference, but it needs to be all hands on deck and it needs to start now. Harris County, I hope you’re paying attention.

When a divorce helps to define a marriage

Interesting case.

A gay San Antonio man has filed for a divorce in which he seeks to prove a common law marriage existed with his former partner of 25 years when federal law prohibited same sex marriage. The law has since then been ruled unconstitutional by Obergefell vs. Hodges in 2015.

If he is successful in his divorce petition, Christopher Hoffman would be eligible for alimony and other benefits from his former partner Moises Ortiz. It would also mark the first time in Texas that a common law [informal] divorce would be granted to a same sex couple who were together prior to Obergefell.

The Texas Family Code provides two methods for establishing a common law [informal] marriage. The first is to “file a declaration of informal marriage with the county clerk. Tex. Fam. Code 2.40l(a)(l).” The second is by showing that “I) the parties ‘agreed to be married’; 2) that the parties lived together as spouses; and 3) that they ‘represented to others that they were married.’ Tex. Fam. Code 2.401 (a)(2).” Additionally, the partner seeking to establish the existence of a common law marriage “bears the burden of demonstrating the three elements by a preponderance of the evidence.”

According to court documents, Hoffman and Ortiz lived together for 25 years beginning in 1994. Hoffman filed for the common law divorce on July 19, 2019 citing adultery and mistreatment among other reasons. In responding to Hoffman’s assertion, Ortiz denies that a common law marriage existed, saying that he and Hoffman had only been roommates.

On July 30, 2019, Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court of Bexar County found that Ortiz’s claim that he and Hoffman “were simply roommates that acted as partners to be incredulous testimony.” The judge went on to issue a temporary order requiring Ortiz to pay Hoffman $1,200 monthly for interim spousal support until a final jury trial’s verdict.

On January 22, 2021, Ortiz’s attorney filed a motion for a Declaratory Judgment which would have made a final, legally binding declaration that Hoffman’s petition was not valid.

Ortiz contended that there was no precedent in Texas state law to show that Obergefell applies retroactively to same sex couples. Hoffman’s attorney countered that there had been two incidents (Ford v. Freemen 2020 and Hinojosa v. LaFredo 2012) of courts in Texas recognizing “a pre-Obergefell same sex common law marriage. However no Texas appellate court has issued any binding authority on the issue.”

(Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney Shelly Skeen authored a brief in the Hinojosa v. LaFredo case.)

There are a couple of precedents I could cite for pre-Obergefell marriages later getting legally dissolved in Texas. Way back in 2010, a Travis County district court judge granted a divorce to two women who had been married in Massachusetts. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott sued to undo the divorce ruling on the grounds that their marriage was not recognized by the state of Texas. That case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled against Abbott, upholding a Third Court of Appeals decision that Abbott didn’t have standing because he waited to intervene until after the original district court ruling. That ruling happened a few months before Obergefell, and SCOTx was emphatic that it was not saying anything about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, just about the AG’s standing to intervene in that case.

In 2014, there was a divorce and child custody filing in Bexar County, also between two women who in this case had been married in Washington,. That one had been filed eight days before a federal judge ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional; this was the original Texas case filed by Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, and Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss. The judge in that Bexar County case later also ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, basing her opinion on the federal case while specifying sections of the state’s Family Code as being illegal. She also cordially invited Greg Abbott to butt the hell out, which kind of makes her my hero. I don’t have any further updates on that case, so it’s my best guess that it eventually proceeded to a normal resolution in the courts.

Finally (yes, I went deep on this one; it’s a topic that fascinates me), there was a post-Obergefell divorce granted in Tarrant County, the culmination of a proceeding that had been filed in 2013. It appears that it was the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage that spurred the case resolution for this one.

So with all that said, and with the usual proviso that I Am Not A Lawyer, I like plaintiff Hoffman’s chances, on the grounds that this is in every other way a pretty normal, boring divorce case that will ultimately be decided on the merits. It’s certainly possible that some bad actors might try to get involved in an effort to pursue a ruling that might draw a distinction between “traditional” marriage and same-sex marriage. I don’t know how that might happen, and I don’t know if it can happen if defendant Ortiz objects to their intervention, I just know that the there are definitely people who would like to intervene in this fashion and for this purpose, and I wouldn’t put it past them. Anyway, I’ll try to keep an eye on this one, just to see how it goes. The trial begins today, so we may know more soon.

Precinct analysis: Beto’s range in the 2022 primaries

When you get 91.34% of the vote in an election, as Beto did in the Democratic primary for Governor, there’s usually not a whole lot of interesting data beneath the surface. But you never know until you look, so I went and got the numbers for the Dem gubernatorial primary by county and sorted them by Beto’s percentage. Here are some highlights from that:


County      Diaz%  Cooper%   Beto%   Voters
===========================================
Maverick   16.40%   10.48%  60.71%    6,653
Frio        8.14%    6.87%  71.72%    2,518
Dimmit     10.41%    7.97%  71.98%    1,845
Duval       8.18%    6.73%  75.62%    1,858
Webb        8.55%    5.29%  77.02%   17,675
Jim Wells   8.23%    6.57%  78.71%    3,866
Cameron     6.99%    4.71%  81.46%   19,705
Hidalgo     6.44%    3.87%  81.68%   37,309
Jefferson   2.35%   12.72%  83.33%   12,637
El Paso     2.93%    2.14%  91.61%   37,017
Fort Bend   2.64%    3.69%  92.02%   39,613
Harris      2.10%    3.22%  92.83%  157,880
Nueces      2.63%    2.52%  93.17%   13,426
Dallas      1.98%    3.14%  93.53%  126,203
Tarrant     2.18%    3.03%  93.77%   73,413
Bexar       2.30%    1.38%  94.13%   94,334
Montgomery  2.25%    1.87%  94.13%   10,585
Travis      2.98%    0.85%  95.00%  108,831
Denton      1.85%    2.01%  95.09%   27,340
Collin      1.77%    1.36%  95.48%   36,368

I limited myself to counties where at least a thousand votes had been cast, though obviously I didn’t include all of them. Maverick was easily Joy Diaz’s best county, while Jefferson (where he’s from) was Michael Cooper’s best. I didn’t include the other two candidates in this table because they weren’t interesting, but Inno Barrientez had his best showing in Frio County, with 8.02% of the vote.

You might look at some of these places and think that this is a sign of weakness on Beto’s part, since the low-scoring places are mostly heavily Latino. I would invite you to consider how he did in these counties in 2018 before you arrive at such a conclusion.


County    Beto 18  Beto 22
==========================
Maverick   22.13%   61.71%
Frio       23.84%   71.72%
Dimmit     29.07%   71.98%
Duval      41.58%   75.62%
Webb       41.65%   77.02%
Jim Wells  40.24%   78.71%
Cameron    46.77%   81.46%
Hidalgo    50.50%   81.68%

Sema Hernandez got over 60% in Maverick, almost 60% in Frio, and over 50% in Dimmit. She won a plurality in Duval, Webb, and Jim Wells, and had over 40% in Cameron and Hidalgo. I largely pooh-poohed the “Beto underperformed in the Latino counties!” hot takes in March of 2018 and I stand by that, but however you felt about those numbers then, it’s very different now.

He really crushed it in the big counties, with Collin the winner as Most Beto-est County Of Them All. You could do this same sort of comparison with 2018 as well if you wanted – Beto got 65.5% in Collin in 2018, 57.7% in Dallas, and 59.1% in Harris – but all we’re really saying is he got a lot more votes from basically the same size electorate. However you slice it, that much remains.

More data about mail ballot rejections

Keep it coming.

Thousands of Texans who attempted to vote by mail in the March primary were disenfranchised in the state’s first election conducted under a new Republican voting law. The state’s largest counties saw a significant spike in the rates of rejected mail-in ballots, most because they did not meet the new, stricter ID requirements.

Local ballot review boards met this week to finalize mail-in ballot rejections, throwing out 11,823 mail-in ballots in just 15 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters. That doesn’t include Harris County, where thousands more votes had been flagged for rejection if voters couldn’t correct them in time. The final statewide count for rejected ballots is still unknown; counties are still reporting numbers to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

The rates of rejections range from 6% to nearly 22% in Bexar County, where almost 4,000 of the more than 18,000 people who returned mail-in ballots saw their votes discarded. In most cases, ballots were rejected for failing to comply with tighter voting rules enacted by Republicans last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail, according to rejection data collected by The Texas Tribune. A few counties’ rejection rates also included ballots that arrived past the voting deadline, but problems with the new ID requirements were the overwhelming cause for not accepting votes.

The impact of the ID requirements was particularly pronounced in several larger counties, including Bexar. In Dallas County, ID issues were to blame for nearly all of the lost votes reported, accounting for 682 of the 694 ballots that were rejected. Most ballots that were rejected because of the ID requirements were missing an ID number altogether. The county had an overall rejection rate of 6.5%

In Hays County, a suburban county south of Austin, all but one of the 208 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The county’s total rejection rate was 8.2%.

In Hidalgo County, just five of the 526 mail-in ballots that were rejected were scrapped because they arrived late. Most were rejected because of the ID requirements, officials said. The county had an overall rejection rate of 19.4%.

In Williamson County, roughly 73% of the 521 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The second main reason for rejection was late returns. Overall, 11.6% of ballots were rejected in the county.

[…]

Early rejection rates hovered between 30% to 40% but dropped as thousands of voters worked to safeguard their votes, often by visiting county elections offices after their ballots were flagged for rejection. Hundreds of other voters canceled their mail-in ballots and opted to vote in person instead, according to county data.

That included more than 300 voters in El Paso County who had initially requested absentee ballots but voted in person, with several voters surrendering their ballots at polling places. The county ended the election with a 16% rejection rate, throwing out 725 votes — 94% of them because of the ID rules.

“In the 2020 primary, we rejected 39 ballots,” Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso, said ahead of election day when the county had flagged more than a thousand ballots for review. “You don’t have to be a math wizard to see it.”

But the opportunity to resolve rejections — or to alternatively head to a polling place — was out of reach for some voters. County officials have said mail-in voters often include people for whom voting in person can be a challenge or who are unable to travel to the county elections office, which for voters in some counties can be a long distance away.

Voters facing a rejected ballot because of ID issues were also directed to the state’s new online tracker to try to validate their information, but technical issues with the tracker’s setup shut out nearly a million registered voters from even accessing it.

Under state law, a voter must provide both a driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number to log in to the tracker; both numbers must be on file in their voter record even though voters are required to provide only one number when they first register to vote.

Despite the secretary of state’s office’s efforts to backfill ID numbers in the state’s voter rolls, more than 700,000 voters lacked one of those ID numbers on their voter records as of Dec. 20. Another 106,911 voters didn’t have either number.

It’s likely not all of those voters are eligible to vote by mail, but the barrier risked hindering enough of Kara Sands’ voters that she pulled references to the online ballot tracker from the guidance she was providing Nueces County voters. Sands, the Republican elected county clerk, said most of the older voters in her county first registered to vote with a Social Security number and that remained the only ID on file for them.

“Why am I going to send them [materials saying] ‘Go here to fix it’ knowing they can’t fix it?” Sands said in an interview ahead of election day.

See here for yesterday’s post about the Bexar County experience. We still need to know how this broke down by party – given that fewer Republicans chose to vote by mail, it’s extremely likely that more Democratic ballots were rejected, but it may be that on a percentage basis they were equivalent – and we still need to distinguish between rejected applications and rejected ballots, as well as who did and didn’t vote in person afterwards. I don’t recall seeing a figure about how many registrations lacked one or both of SSNs and drivers license numbers before now, so it would be good to know as well how many people who did fill out the ballot correctly, with the proper voter ID information, were still rejected because the state database was incomplete. I could see that as a basis for another lawsuit, with the goal of halting all further rejections until the state can prove that its database is fully up to date, but that might be moot by November, and I don’t know what other relief a voter could ask for.

The Associated Press takes a crack at this, and offers a bit of partisan data.

Although the final number of discounted ballots will be lower, the early numbers suggest Texas’ rejection rate will far exceed the 2020 general election, when federal data showed that less than 1% of mail ballots statewide were rejected.

“It took me three tries and 28 days but I got my ballot and I voted,” said Pamiel Gaskin, 75, of Houston. Like many rejected mail voters, she did not list a matching identification number that Texas’ new law requires.

For now, the numbers do not represent how many Texas ballots were effectively thrown out. Voters had until Monday to “fix” rejected mail ballots, which in most cases meant providing identification that is now required under a sweeping law signed last fall by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

New requirements include listing an identification number — either a driver’s license or a Social Security number — on the ballot’s carrier envelope. That number must match the county’s records. If a ballot is rejected, voters could add an ID number via an online ballot tracking system, go to the county’s election offices and fix the problem in person, or vote with a provisional ballot on election day.

County election officers say they worked feverishly to contact those voters in time, in many cases successfully, and a full and final tally of rejected ballots in Texas is expected to come into focus in the coming days.

But already, scores of mail ballots have been disqualified for good.

[…]

The AP obtained reports from 120 counties — nearly half of the 254 in Texas — through county websites and contacting all counties that had not posted a report publicly.

In Texas’ largest county, around Houston, Harris County officials said more than 11,000 mail ballots had been flagged for rejection as of March 2. But in the county’s preliminary report that is dated a day later, the number of rejected mail ballots was listed at 3,277. On Tuesday, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was stepping down following a bungled vote count.

Houston Democrats have been among the most outspoken over Texas’ new voting laws, which they say are designed to weaken minority turnout. But Republican-leaning counties struggled with the new rules as well.

In Parker County, which former President Donald Trump carried by a 4-to-1 margin in 2020, the county reported 250 mail ballots as rejected or pending out of 1,100 mail votes — about 23%. Along the Texas coast in Nueces County, which Trump narrowly won, the rejection rate was 8%.

According to the county reports, in the five counties won by Trump that had the most mail-in voters, a combined 4,216 mailed ballots were rejected or still pending after the day of the election, a rate of 21% of the total. In the counties won by Biden with the most mail-in voters, which include most of Texas’ biggest cities, a combined 11,190 votes were similarly rejected or pending, which amounted to 13%.

Kara Sands, the election administrator in Nueces County, said her office pressed voters to include more than one identification number as a guardrail against having their ballot rejected. But she said her office wasn’t inundated with voter frustration.

“We really didn’t get a lot of folks complaining about that,” she said.

Texas holds primary runoffs in May, and elections officials say their goal now is to educate voters to avoid a repeat next time. Christopher Davis, the elections administrator in Williamson County, said the final rejection rate of 11.5% was “by far the highest we have ever seen” in the county of more than 600,000 people.

“The hope is we knock down that rejection rate,” he said.

Interesting that those five deep red counties had a higher rate of rejection than the blue counties, though there were fewer total votes there. Likely that’s a function of the blue counties being more populous, though that also suggests that a greater percentage of total votes were affected in the red counties. For comparison, the AP story notes that a total of about 8,300 mail ballots were rejected in the 2020 election, which was out of 11 million ballots cast. Every way you look at it, this was an exponential increase.

And Talking Points Memo was also on this.

The rejection rates are staggering. In booming Collin County, for example, nearly 14% of mail-in votes were ultimately rejected, the election administrator there told TPM.

In Harris County, Texas’ largest and home to Houston, a whopping 6,888 ballots were ultimately rejected “as a direct result of Senate Bill 1,” according to a statement from the county to TPM — nearly 19% of mail-in ballots. By comparison only, 135 of the 48,473 votes cast in the 2018 primary were rejected, the statement said — three tenths of a percent.

“That is apocalyptic. It calls into question whether this is even a free and fair election,” said James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “The sheer, catastrophically high rate of rejections has been very bad.”

Unlike many others, [Monica] Emery was able to fix her ballot, filling out multiple forms to “cure” the error in the days following Election Day, and consulting with attorneys and election officials to make sure her vote counted. Finally, she received word from the county on Monday, on the last possible day to fix ballot issues, that her vote had been tallied. (Texas’ new online “ballot tracker” website apparently didn’t get the memo: It continued to label her ballot “rejected.”)

But Emery, a retiree in the Dallas area, was one of the lucky ones. She’s “perfectly healthy.” She lives near her polling place. She knows her county officials and they had the bandwidth to help her. And she had additional help from multiple lawyers who she’d contacted for help. But what about her son, a pilot in the Air Force currently living in the United Kingdom? What about her elderly friend down the road, living with long COVID? Would they have been able to handle a tricky rejection letter? Would they have received word that their ballots had been rejected in time? She doubted it.

Lawmakers, Emery said, “are making it harder than it needs to be to do a real simple thing like voting by mail.”

[…]

In Travis County, home to Austin, 16% of the roughly 11,200 mail-in ballots were initially rejected, and only half of voters were able to cure those rejections in time to be counted, said Victoria Hinojosa of the Travis County clerk’s office.

Almost three of four rejected ballots were from Democrats, and most rejected ballots had “ID issues,” Hinojosa told TPM.

In Williamson County, north of Austin, 11.5% of ballots were rejected in the final tally — “absolutely higher than anything we’ve ever encountered before,” Elections Administrator Chris Davis told Austin’s NPR station KUT. In El Paso County, the final rejection rate was about 16%, or 725 mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reported.

In Collin County, which includes a chunk of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and is experiencing meteoric population growth, the ballot rejection rate right after the election hovered around 15%, down from a peak of 25% at the beginning of voting. After the curing period, that number ticked down slightly to a 13.7% rejection rate, or 828 ballots rejected.

“Unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed during the legislative session turned out to be true,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, which is part of a coalition of groups that sued over the law in September. “It’s very frustrating.”

“I can tell you, almost the whole thing is SB1-related,” Collin County Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet told TPM of the rejections. “If we had rejections before SB1, it was usually in the single digits.”

Sherbet said that nearly all of the rejections stemmed from missing ID numbers on the original voter file, ballot application or ballot itself. In some cases, older voters who’d aged out of driving tried to vote with their new state ID number, which didn’t match the old driver’s license number on their registration.

He lacked data on the party split, but said that it’s likely more Republican voters were hurt by the law’s new provisions, since roughly 1,600 more of them voted by mail in his county.

[…]

The chaos unleashed by the new mail-in ballot requirements was “very predictable,” Josh Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told TPM.

“The legislators were warned multiple times throughout hearings on these bills for the better part of a year that requiring voters to supply drivers license numbers or partial Social Security numbers, whichever of two you used to register to vote, would likely to be a problem for many Texans — especially given that most of the Texans who automatically qualify for mail-in ballots are over 65 and likely registered decades ago,” he said.

Less predictable is who exactly the confusing new requirements will hurt. While much of Republicans’ antagonism towards voting by mail stems from former President Donald Trump’s efforts to toss ballots in 2020, it’s not clear that knotting up the system will hurt Democratic voters more than Republican ones.

That “scattershot” strategy, Blank said, is due to the virtual nonexistence of voter fraud. It’s legislating a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It’s one thing to make unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud,” he said. “It’s another to reject hundreds of thousands of ballots, which is what Texas is on the path to do in November if this primary is any indication.”

As this story notes, the “ballot curing” process, in which voters whose mail ballots lacked the correct ID number had until Monday to fix them, likely will reduce the eventual total, which started at about 27,000. But doing that isn’t easy for everyone – some voters don’t have reliable Internet access, some can’t drive to the election administrator’s office, and so on.

Finally, because it took me longer than it should have to find this on Twitter, here’s most of the Harris County data I’ve been wanting:

Again, more Dem mail ballots overall, but a higher rejection rate among Republicans – 17.6% of all Dem mail ballots, and 22.0% of all GOP mail ballots. Still more Dem votes rejected, but in a scenario where the mail votes are distributed more evenly, like in 2018, that’s going to bite the Republicans. The Chron story that these tweets are based on is here. In response to a question from me, Scherer also reported that “13 people with rejected ballots ended up voting in person”, which obviously ain’t much. Makes me think that will be the cases around the state as well.

Of course, as I said yesterday and as noted in the AP story, we can do a lot to improve things for November, and we have the May primary runoff and special election to practice. But man, that will be an expensive and labor-intensive process, and it’s so completely unnecessary. You will note that Abbott and Sen. Bryan Hughes have been studiously avoiding the press on this, because what can they actually say? Or more likely, why would anyone think they cared? At least we have the rhetorical turf to ourselves for now. Whatever else we do, we need to get folks mad and motivated over this. Because – say it with me now – nothing will change until people lose elections over this crap. That’s the one sure thing we can do. Daily Kos has more.

The rejected mail ballots of Bexar County

I have four things to say about this.

Bexar County rejected mail-in ballots at roughly ten times the rate it did before the passage of the state’s new voting law last year.

Before Senate Bill 1 took effect, with its host of changes and restrictions to voting in Texas, roughly 2% to 3% of mail-in ballots were rejected in local elections, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the San Antonio Report.

In the March primary, as many as 22% have been rejected thus far, a figure she expects to increase once all the late, ineligible ballots are counted.

The county received a total of 18,336 mail-in ballots in the primary, and has had to reject 4,197 of them, most for “technical issues” associated with the new law, Callanen said.

One of the biggest issues was the new requirement that voters to provide, on both their vote-by-mail application and the ballot, their driver’s license number or Social Security number — critically, they must choose the same number for both.

If a voter wrote in different numbers, or a number not tied to them in the state’s system, the ballot was rejected. Some voters left that space blank, others chose the wrong number, or the state system had it wrong, Callanen said.

Making it even harder, the new portion of the form that asked for the voter’s Texas driver’s license number or the last for of their social was “in the smallest print possible,” Callanen said.

In order to fix, or “cure,” a ballot, the elections department sends it back through the post office to the voter to request changes. If there’s not enough time to mail it back and forth, the department tries to notify the voter by phone or email about the error, giving the voter a chance to come in person to the elections office to meet the curing deadline.

Corrected mail ballots are still arriving, she said, but “it’s too late. Now we can’t count them. … We had to have them back in our possession by Monday at 5 p.m.”

[…]

James Slattery, senior staff attorney on the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the new voting provisions were designed to suppress the vote.

“Voting in person, or coming in person to the clerk’s office is obviously unavailable to people who are voting by mail because they’re outside of Texas, or because they have a disability and can’t leave their home easily,” he said.

Slattery called the curing options “byzantine,” defeating the entire purpose of mail-in voting. Also, many voters are unaware of the Secretary of State’s new website that explains the new processes, he said, as the state has done a poor job of voter outreach and education.

[…]

Voters have two more chances to get it right very soon. The primary runoff election on May 24 will include several county, state and federal races, including Bexar County judgestate House District 122U.S. Congressional District 28, and State Board of Education, district 1.

Texas voters will also get the chance to reduce their property tax bills in the state’s constitutional amendment election on May 7.

That’s not much time to educate voters who may have had their mail-in ballots rejected, Callanen said.

“We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to reach out to those people to make sure that they get a ballot for May 7, that they get a ballot for May 24 without them being frustrated.”

1. The wording about ballots received and rejected in Bexar in the 2022 primaries is a bit confusing. To be clear, there were 14,180 total mail ballots cast, of which 9,809 were Democratic The historic election results on the Bexar County elections site doesn’t say how many mail ballots were cast in 2018, so I don’t have a good basis for comparison. In Harris County, there were 17,810 Democratic mail ballots cast and 11,064 Republican mail ballots, down from 22,695 and 24,500 in 2018, respectively. We don’t know how many ballots were rejected in Harris yet, but we know it was a lot early on. We need much finer data about this: How many ballot applications were rejected for each party, and how many later got fixed? How many mail ballots were then rejected for each party, and how many later got fixed? Of the people who never got a mail ballot or were not able to get their mail ballot counted, how many eventually voted in person? How many people who voted by mail in 2018 did so in 2022, how many of them voted in person instead, and how many didn’t vote at all? All of that data is available, we just need to know it.

2. What is there to be done about the people who are now apparently completely locked out of voting by mail? This story mentioned a woman who could not request one on behalf of her disabled son who can’t speak, because SB1 only allows you to request one for yourself. I was wondering about someone who gave a drivers license number when they registered to vote however many years ago but is now unable to drive and gave up their license, so they no longer have a DL number. Are they just screwed if they can’t vote in person? I feel like this may require litigation to determine, and we know how long that can take.

3. Let’s be clear, because this needs to be said over and over again, none of this bureaucratic bullshit in SB1 does a thing to make elections safer. It just makes it harder to vote by mail. The state’s lawyer admitted that was the idea in court. Republicans who believe in the big lie about the 2020 election will think what they want to, but that doesn’t mean anyone else has to.

4. All that said, unless we can get a win in court before November, which I would not count on, this is at this point a voter education issue. Everyone on the Democratic side needs to learn about the new law and help out the people they know who vote by mail to make sure their ballot is accepted. It’s harder now, and there’s no good reason for it, but this is where we are. If you are or know someone who voted by mail in 2020 and hopes to do so again, make sure you vote in both May elections, the runoff and the special. That’s your chance to practice for November.

Precinct analysis: Final 2022 primary vote totals from those counties of interest

At the end of early voting, I posted some totals from various counties around the state. I noted at the time it was an imprecise comparison since I included final 2018 turnout numbers as the comparison point for 2022 and said I’d update that table when voting was over. Well, voting is over, so let’s return to that table and see what we can see.


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Bell            7,282     18,149     9,089    20,912
Bexar          81,408     67,977    94,334    87,277
Brazoria       10,085     24,376    11,331    30,541
Brazos          5,131     12,365     4,611    16,430
Cameron        14,123      4,003    19,705    10,504
Collin         34,669     66,078    36,368    79,431
Comal           4,150     17,662     4,847    23,874
Dallas        123,671     80,583   126,203    86,551
Denton         27,025     49,474    27,340    68,104
El Paso        54,184     12,096    37,017    18,240
Ellis           4,243     15,906     5,376    18,536
Fort Bend      29,322     34,707    39,613    45,582
Hays           11,397     11,881    12,972    15,475
Hidalgo        37,739      7,050    37,309    15,042
Johnson         2,618     12,280     2,485    17,085
Lubbock         5,900     21,964     5,599    27,552
Maverick        6,300        111     6,653       623
Montgomery      9,701     48,921    10,585    71,451
Nueces         12,345     12,553    13,426    18,871
Smith           4,704     22,826     6,362    27,668
Starr           6,729         15     3,410     1,089
Tarrant        71,876    105,317    73,410   129,628
Travis        113,070     39,177   108,831    46,416
Webb           21,137      1,426    17,675     2,963
Williamson     25,681     35,675    26,067    47,431

The first thing you might notice is that the final numbers for Starr and Maverick counties are less than the final EV totals I had. How can that be? I double-checked the final EV totals on the SOS webpage, and they are now as they were then, 6,895 for Maverick and 5,188 for Starr. I may not know much, but I know that election totals go up, not down. How do I explain this?

I went and looked at the Starr County Elections page to see what I could find. What I found is that the turnout numbers they presented for the Democratic and Republican primaries are indeed different than what the SOS reported for the gubernatorial races, by a fair amount. While there were 3,410 votes cast in the Governor’s race on the Democratic side in Starr, and 1,089 on the Republican side, total turnout for Democrats was given as 6,456, with 1,444 as the total for Republicans. You can see if you scroll through that some races, like the CD28 Dem primary, got a lot more votes than the gubernatorial primary. I figured maybe the action was a bit heavier downballot, and that seemed to be true on the Dem side in that there were a lot more votes cast in the eight Justice of the Peace races. There were still undervotes, which were easier to comprehend as they were a lot closer to the “total votes” figures for each race, but if you added up all the votes in those eight JP precincts, you get the 6,456 and 1,444 figures cited.

Make of that what you will. The transition from the “actual total turnout regardless of who voted in what race” to the “total that actually voted in this race” was jarring, in this case because the undervote rate was so low. I have no idea what it might have been in 2018, so I can’t draw any conclusions. As for Maverick County, I couldn’t find a report from their website, just what the SOS had. Insert shrug emoji here.

Anyway. I didn’t have an agenda for this post, just an intention to keep the promise made before. I’ve got some other posts about primary voting in the works and will run those in the coming days.