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RNC sues to halt California mail ballot expansion

Put a pin in this.

The Republican National Committee and other Republican groups have filed a lawsuit against California to stop the state from mailing absentee ballots to all voters ahead of the 2020 general election, a move that was made in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced this month that the state would move to encourage all voters to cast their ballots by mail in November — the most widespread expansion of vote-by-mail that has been announced as a result of the pandemic and in the nation’s most populous state.

The RNC’s lawsuit challenges that step, marking a significant escalation in the legal battles between Republicans and Democrats that are currently being waged in more than a dozen states.

[…]

Sunday’s suit — filed on behalf of the RNC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party — seeks to halt Newsom’s order, arguing that it “violates eligible citizens’ right to vote.”

The groups argue that Newsom’s order will lead to fraud because the state plans to mail ballots to inactive voters automatically, which “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting.”

Studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud as a result of in-person or mail-in voting.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the complaint here. Part of it is specific to California law and whether or not Governor Newsom has the authority to issue this executive order, and part of it is the claim that mailing a ballot to all eligible voters will result in an unconstitutional “dilution” of the vote because of the likelihood that more “fraudulent” votes will be cast. I can’t speak to the former, but the latter is a claim that bears watching. It’s ridiculous on its face, especially given the utter lack of evidence to bolster any claim about significant “vote fraud”, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTUS couldn’t eventually find a way to justify a limit to voting rights down the line.

None of this directly impacts Texas – we’re in a different judicial district, and there’s not a chance on earth that we would mail a ballot to every registered voter, no matter the outcome of the various federal lawsuits. But we need to keep an eye on this because it could eventually have an effect here.

How about some antibody tests?

That would be good.

After months of emphasis on diagnostic screening, contact tracing and research into possible treatments, Houston is about to deploy a new tool in the effort to contain COVID-19: antibody testing.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers last week presented evidence to school leadership that the blood test it developed to detect whether an individual has been infected with the coronavirus is highly accurate and ready for use in studies assessing the virus’ reach in the area. Such studies would provide the answer that hasn’t been ascertainable because of the shortage of diagnostic testing.

“This will tell us the severity of the disease based on prevalence, the number of people who have had the virus but do not show up in case counts because they were asymptomatic and weren’t tested,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor. “That’s needed to better understand how infections impact different Houston communities, the variations in those communities and the numbers in certain high-risk environments, like prisons and nursing homes.”

Klotman said he anticipates Baylor will partner with local health departments to determine optimal resource allocation — such as where to focus testing and contact tracing — based on the prevalence the studies find in communities.

A Baylor prevalence study based on antibody testing would put the Houston region among a handful of U.S. communities to conduct such research, which has found that more than 20 percent of people in New York City but only 4 percent of those in Los Angeles County have been infected. Klotman said he thinks Houston’s rate will be closer to the California number.

Such antibody testing, repeated over time, also would show the area’s progress toward herd immunity, the protection from a contagious disease that occurs when a high percentage of the population has either had the infection or been vaccinated. Experts say that percentage — there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet — needs to reach at least 60 to 70.

There’s more, and you should read the rest. As a reminder, viral tests are to see who has the virus now, and antibody tests are to see who has had it in the past. Do not mix the two if you want to know the current case count. I would note that the Texas Tribune case tracker showed 10,921 infections in Harris County as of May 25. If that four percent guess is accurate, then given a county population of 4.7 million, the actual number of cases would be more like 188,000. That’s consistent, even a bit under, the typical antibody test experience, which winds up estimating the real infection count at about ten times the “official” count. And note that we’d have to have more than ten times that number to get close to the minimum threshold for herd immunity.

Anyway. I look forward to seeing what this can tell us. In conjunction with the wastewater testing, maybe we can finally get a clear local picture of this pandemic.

Emerson: Trump 47, Biden 41

Next up.

The latest Emerson College/Nexstar Media polls of Texas, California, and Ohio show President Donald Trump with a slight advantage in Ohio and Texas in the general election against presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump also appears to be who voters in these states expect to win in November, as a majority expect him to secure a second term.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to deeply affect the country, Governors in all three states maintain strong approval and partisan divides are stark in individual opinions on the country’s future.

[…]

In Texas, a potential new battleground state, President Trump is at 46% approval and 44% disapproval. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has 54% approval and 32% disapproval among voters in the state. n=800, +/-3.4%.

Trump leads Biden by six points among Texas voters, 47% to 41%, but when undecided voters are included, Trump’s lead tightens to four points, 52% to 48%. Despite the close ballot test, a clear majority of voters in Texas, 61%, expect Trump to be re-elected.

A slight majority in Texas, 51%, would rather vote by mail this year because of concerns about safety related to the virus.

You can see the full poll data for Texas here. For what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight uses the 52-48 push-the-leaner total on its Texas polling page.

There are some questions about what kind of newly reopened establishments one would feel comfortable in, if you want to read more. Texas respondents were more cautious than their Ohio counterparts, which was interesting. Note that while Greg Abbott had fairly solid approval numbers, they pale in comparison to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who checked in at 71 approve/15 disapprove – California Governor Gavin Newsom was at 65/20. Both DeWine and Newsom have been generally praised for their handling of the pandemic, while Abbott has been his usual wishy-washy self. It’s not that Abbott’s numbers are terrible, but compared to his peers, they’re weak. Make of that what you will.

Hollywood’s plans to come back

I’ve posted a few times about how sports leagues like MLB are making plans to return to action from coronavirus shutdowns. The larger entertainment industry, including TV and movie making, are in a similar position as the sports leagues, and they too are starting to game out how they can (safely) return to doing what they do. This story gives a good outline of where that stands.

We are still months away from cameras rolling — studios’ most optimistic projections are for July-August production restarts, and the more realistic ones are aiming to be up and running by September. California is still under a stay-at-home order, which currently expires on May 15.

There are many different issues we will cover, starting today with the resumption of location and soundstage shoots.

Getting up and running again in this brave new world is going to be very difficult to navigate. For one thing, insurers are unlikely to cover productions for COVID-19 cases when business resumes, according to multiple sources in the know. Producers all over filed multimillion-dollar claims triggered when civil authorities — governments — prevented filming from continuing and forcing production shutdowns. When the business starts up, that will now be considered an identified risk, and insurers will not cover it, sources said, just as CDC is warning of a second coronavirus wave.

What does that mean? Most likely, everyone on a film or TV production will be required to sign a rider, similar to ones they sign covering behavior codes in areas like sexual harassment, to indemnify the productions. “You acknowledge you are going into a high-density area, and while we will do our best effort to protect you, nothing is failsafe and if you contract COVID-19, we are not liable,” said a source involved drawing up these guidelines. “There is no other way we can think of to address this. If you don’t want to sign, don’t take the job.”

Conversations about how to return to production began ramping up late last week amid stabilizing levels of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in Los Angeles County, boosted by an encouraging drop in new infections over the weekend. Unfortunately, the optimism was short lived — Tuesday and Wednesday brought record spikes in deaths– but discussions continue because the business cannot begin to recover until an industry goes back to work.

So far, there are no protocols on which studios have settled, but active discussions continue, including with the film commissions in New York and Los Angeles, we hear. AMPTP and IATSE are leaning in hardest here to map lists of safety concerns and solutions, and every major studio in Hollywood has top people trying to figure out every scenario that needs to be addressed before shows can get up and running. The same conversations are taking place in other areas that touch the business, from the offices where people work and congregate, to hotspot eateries and movie theaters.

A lot of this starts with the state of California’s plan to gradually ease up on restrictions. Studios will still need to contend with any remaining local restrictions. There’s a lot in here, from catering to heavier use of green screens to avoid filming crowds to extra special handling of topline stars, and some of the items listed will likely be similar to the steps other businesses will have to take to reopen their own offices. Check it out.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

What does “reopening the economy” look like?

We’ll find out (sort of) later this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that reopening the Texas economy will be a “slow process” guided by public health concerns as he continued to preview a forthcoming executive order that will detail his strategy to reignite business in the state.

Abbott, who first hinted at his plans during a news conference Friday, said he’ll outline them later this week. Asked for more details Monday, he indicated his announcement will include a “comprehensive team” that he said will “evaluate what must be done for Texas to open back up, ensuring what we are doing is consistent with data, with medical analysis, as well as strategies about which type of businesses will be able to open up.”

“This is not gonna be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once” situation, Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin where he announced $50 million in loans to small businesses suffering under the pandemic.

Abbott also told reporters to expect an announcement this week on whether schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Abbott previously ordered them closed until May 4.

[…]

As he did Friday, Abbott said Monday that testing will be a part of his announcement later this week on reopening the economy.

“We will ensure that a component of that will include adequate testing,” Abbott said, adding that he just had a hourlong conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, about the testing necessary to “safely reopen the state for doing business.”

That last part is interesting, since so far the state of Texas has sucked at doing testing. Far more of it will be necessary to really open society up again, or else we’ll be right back where we started, with this giant unstoppable risk that we’re all vulnerable to. I’ll wait till there are more details before I go too far down the rabbit hole, but the first question on my mind is will this override whatever stay-at-home orders there are still in the counties? You may recall, Abbott was perfectly happy to let mayors and county judges lead the way when the hard decisions had to be made about shutting down. Will he still respect them later this week when he wants to start things up, or will that all be yesterday’s news? How will the Abbott plan compare with the reopening plans in other states? Stay tuned and find out.

We still have no idea how many people have been infected

There’s just a real lack of testing being done.

Six times in three weeks, Marci Rosenberg and her ailing husband and teenage children tried to get tested for the new coronavirus — only to be turned away each time, either for not meeting narrow testing criteria or because there simply were not enough tests available.

All the while, the Bellaire family of four grew sicker as their fevers spiked and their coughs worsened. They said they fell one by one into an exhaustion unlike any they had felt before.

By March 18, Rosenberg was desperate and pleaded with her doctor for a test. Dr. Lisa Ehrlich, an internal medicine physician, told Rosenberg to pull into her office driveway. But Ehrlich warned Rosenberg, “I can only test one of you.” She swabbed her throat through an open car window. The result came back the next day: positive.

The rest of her family was presumed to be positive but untested – and thus excluded from any official tally of the disease.

As the number of confirmed cases of the potentially deadly virus continues to explode across the Houston region – tripling from 1,000 to more than 3,000 in just the past week – there is mounting evidence that the true scope of the disease here could be far worse than the numbers indicate.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of testing data collected through Wednesday shows that Texas has the second-worst rate of testing per capita in the nation, with only 332 tests conducted for every 100,000 people. Only Kansas ranks lower, at 327 per 100,000 people.

In cities across Texas — from Houston to Dallas, San Antonio to Nacogdoches — testing continues to be fraught with missteps, delays and shortages, resulting in what many predict will ultimately be a significant undercount. Not fully knowing who has or had the disease both skews public health data and also hampers treatment and prevention strategies, potentially leading to a higher death count, health care experts say.

[…]

As the pandemic’s march quickened, Texas was slow to ramp up testing.

The first confirmed case in Texas, outside those under federal quarantine from a cruise ship, was March 4, striking a Houston area man in his 70s who lived in Fort Bend county and had recently traveled abroad. By month’s end, the Houston area had more than 1,000 confirmed cases. A week later, the number had pushed past 3,000.

Yet it was not until March 30 that the rate of testing per 100,000 people in Texas topped 100. As of Wednesday, the state was testing 327 per 100,000, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, which collects information nationwide on testing primarily from state health departments, and supplements with reliable news reports and live press conferences.

Twenty-six states in the U.S. are testing at least double the number of patients per capita as Texas, in some cases six times more. New York, for instance, is testing 1,877 per 100,000 people while neighboring Louisiana is testing 1,622 per 100,000. Even smaller states, such as New Mexico, are testing triple the rate of Texas.

Texas officials defended the state’s response.

“We’ve consistently seen about 10 percent of tests coming back positive, which indicates there is enough testing for public health surveillance,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, in an email, “If we saw 40 or 50 percent or more of test coming back positive, we’d be concerned that there could be a large number of cases out there going unreported, but that has not been the case.”

It is unclear if that is a reliable measure. Nearly 41 percent of New York tests were positive, the second-highest rate in the country. In Texas, about 9.4 percent of tests were positive — roughly the same as Washington state, where one of the largest outbreaks of coronavirus has occurred.

Not the first time we’ve talked about this, and it won’t be the last. This also means that the official number of deaths attributed to coronavirus is likely too low. This has been the case globally, especially in the hardest-hit places, where the difference between the normal daily mortality rate and the observed mortality rate during the crisis is a lot bigger than the official count of COVID-19 deaths. The good news is that as yet our hospitals have not been overwhelmed, but we can’t say with confidence that that will continue to be the case.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Houston area is continuing a steady climb, not close to crisis levels but unnerving enough that experts still aren’t sure when the area’s grand experiment in social distancing will start showing up in daily counts.

After a week in which COVID-19 hospitalization numbers more than doubled in Harris County, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said it likely will be another week to 10 days before they know if the stay-at-home orders and closures are reducing the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading and keeping health care facilities from being overwhelmed.

“Even though we’ve been social distancing for three weeks, it’s too early to know when we’ll be on the downward slope,” said Catherine Troisi, a professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health. “The numbers we’re seeing now reflect people who were exposed to the virus up to four weeks ago.”

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said the social distancing has paid off in terms of keeping hospital volumes under control so far but added that the pay-off in terms of ending the pandemic is unclear. He said that “we need to continue stay-at-home orders until the end of the month, then reassess whether to extend them longer.”

Hotez and others said that aggressive social distancing is more important now than ever, given modelers are projecting that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area should peak in the next few weeks. They said people venturing out during the peak period will put themselves at high risk of contracting the virus.

[…]

The study, released on March 24, originally said the virus’ spread in the Houston area would peak April 7 and burn out by mid-May if stay-at-home orders are continued until May 12. It was not clear Tuesday when the study projects the virus will burn out now.

Eric Boerwinkle, the lead researcher, could not be reached for comment Tuesday and UTHealth officials had no update on the study. Boerwinkle, who did not make the original modeling publicly available, has briefed top local government officials on the work.

Another modeling study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now projects that the Texas peak use of hospital resources for COVID-19 will be April 19, some two weeks earlier than it previously projected. The study, reportedly relied on by the Trump administration, foresees no bed shortage in the state, including in intensive care.

“That’s why you shouldn’t place too much weight on any one model,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, Baylor’s dean of clinical affairs. “They depend on assumptions plugged in and can show everything from Houston being able to handle the surge to a New York City-like situation.”

McDeavitt noted the wild cards that go into modeling — the number of people admitted to a hospital, the percentage that need intensive care, how long it takes to get patients off ventilators, how long they need to recover in a regular bed once they move out of intensive care. Those are the assumptions that drive models, he noted.

McDeavitt said he doesn’t think the number of cases will come down in the Houston area until the end of the month.

That story was from earlier in the week, so all of the numbers are a bit out of date by now. But the bottom line remains that we don’t know where we are on the curve because we don’t really know how many people are or have been sick. Models all rely on data, and we’re also not good with the data.

The information Texans are working with is too damn thin.

Where to start? Not enough tests have been completed, or taken, to really know who has or doesn’t have the disease, where the Texas hotspots are, or whether people who have died of respiratory problems had COVID-19. The relatively small number of test results also means we don’t know which people had the disease and recovered (and how many people have recovered) and whether the projections being made with that skimpy data are accurate enough to guide our public health decisions.

It’s not enough to say that the testing is getting better, that we know more than we knew just a few days ago. What we still don’t know overshadows what we do know.

We’re like pilots flying in clouds without instruments. We know a little bit, but not enough to make really solid decisions or to figure out what’s next. We’re learning as we go. As of Thursday, Texas was reporting 10,230 cases and 199 deaths, 1,439 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 106,134 tests conducted.

Given the level of testing right now, it’s hard to know how many cases Texas really has. Because the best way to get tested for the new coronavirus is to show symptoms that a medical professional finds troublesome, it’s probably safe to say we’re not testing many people who are carrying the virus but don’t have symptoms.

It’s easier — because it’s more obvious — to map the institutional cases. When someone in a nursing home or a state supported living center or a prison tests positive, testing everyone in that location is simple and smart. It’s simple to figure out that everyone in a given building or campus might have been exposed.

Even that data isn’t always available. The state of Texas initially wasn’t sharing details about the data it has collected from nursing homes where COVID-19 cases have been found. But a few days after The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters and Carla Astudillo wrote about it, the state revealed 13% of nursing homes have at least one confirmed case.

We’re doing a lot of flying blind. If we want to make good decisions about things like when and how to restart the economy, we need a much better understanding of where we are, and where that means we’re likely to be going.

Coronavirus and driving

There are a lot fewer cars on the road now, though the decrease may not be quite as much as you’d think.

I don’t miss this

Traffic around the country has plummeted since governments began enacting stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but data from vehicle navigation systems and other monitors shows many of us are still out of our homes and on the road.

Nationwide, traffic analytics firms say, daily traffic remains at about 60% of normal levels, even as the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they’re staying home more.

In California, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, daily trips statewide remain at 58% of normal levels, according to Wejo, a British company that collects data from sensors in some passenger vehicles.

On Wednesday – two days after the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland enacted stay-at-home orders – daily car trips in the region remained at 51% of normal in D.C., 53% in Maryland and 59% in Virginia, according to Wejo, which does not include trucks or other commercial vehicles.

The figures are similar in parts of the country at the forefront of the U.S. covid-19 outbreak and where people have been under shelter-in-place orders longer.

[…]

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted March 22-25 found that 91% of Americans reported staying home as much as possible due to the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 9 in 10 said they had stopped going to restaurants and bars.

But plenty of Americans are still on the road, even if they have curtailed their travel.

Some of the remaining traffic, experts say, stems from motorists heading to and from the many worksites that have been deemed “essential”: health-care facilities, supermarkets and liquor stores, construction sites, banks, dry cleaners, hardware stores, pet stores, government facilities, and auto and bicycle repair shops, among others. The Washington region’s orders also exempt plumbers, electricians and others needed for home repairs.

Some workers who previously might have taken mass transit or carpooled might now be driving alone in an attempt to distance themselves from others, experts say. Public transportation service hours also have been curtailed dramatically.

And though many of us have greatly reduced our travel, we usually can’t eliminate it. Activities deemed essential to carrying on daily life include fetching food, going to a doctor’s appointment or picking up a prescription. In The Post-ABC News poll, 6 in 10 people said they had stocked up on food and household supplies.

And if you want to hit the road to avoid climbing the walls? Washington-area officials say it’s OK to drive for “leisure” or relaxation – a pastime not typically associated with the region’s roads.

It turns out that a lot of driving is not just for going to and from work, but for things like errands and shopping, which people are still doing albeit not as often. And of course there are a lot of people who still have to go to work, for those essential services. My team was ordered to start working from home on March 9, and I’ve barely been on the road since then. I don’t miss it at all. It has been a good opportunity to give my elder daughter some road experience with her learner’s permit, since we’re much less likely to encounter nasty conditions. This was a national story from the Washington Post, so there was no Texas-specific information in it, but an earlier Chron story suggests we’ve seen the same effect here, so much so that conditions have been great for road construction projects. It wouldn’t surprise me if one result of all this is more people working from home for the long term, which in turn would mean a permanent dip in traffic. We can all hope.

Another lawsuit the Astros want tossed

It was the first one filed against them relating to the banging scheme.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the team, owner Jim Crane and baseball operations employee Derek Vigoa by former Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who says his career was ruined by the Astros’ 2017-18 sign-stealing scheme.

The motion, filed by Los Angeles attorney John C. Hueston, says the case is “utterly devoid of merit.” More critically, however, it says California is not the proper venue and that Bolsinger’s suit should be dismissed or stayed until it can be resolved by a court in Texas.

[…]

While asking that the case be dismissed, the Astros’ attorneys say that Texas is the proper forum, if the case proceeds, because the Astros are based in Texas and Bolsinger resides in Texas, They add that Texas would be a more cost-efficient venue because virtually all witnesses and documents are in Texas and because the sign-stealing occurred in Texas.

In addition, attorneys say, California has little to no stake in the matter because no allegedly harmful activity occurred in California and no California residents claim to have been harmed.

They also say the case would clog California’s already-overburdened court system and that forcing the Astros to defend the case in California in a case “with such limited connections to California” could dissuade other out-of-state businesses from doing business in California.

“Texas courts are well-equipped to address the relief sought by (Bolsinger), and all private and public interest factors demonstrate that Texas is a far more convenient forum than California,” attorneys add.

In a separate filing, the Astros’ attorneys say California courts lack jurisdiction in the case because the defendants lack sufficient minimum contacts with California. The case, they add, is “objectively frivolous for a host of reasons.”

See here for the background. There will be a hearing on the motions on June 12. I tend to agree that this lawsuit is more or less without merit, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, so take that for what it’s worth.

Of course he thinks that’s “essential”

Doesn’t get any more on-brand than this.

Best mugshot ever

Gun stores are essential business and should be allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday.

Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.

“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.

Many cities and counties had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the fire arms businesses.

“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.

The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.

That’s because this process normally requires research and inquiry, and leave open the possibility of an answer that doesn’t conform to one’s initial inclinations. Couldn’t take any chances on that here, obviously. People need to be able to defend themselves against that virus. I recommend very small-caliber bullets.

AG opinions are not binding, of course, so a city or county could go ahead and impose a ban on gun stores anyway if they wanted to. That would leave it up to a court to decide; there’s a fight over this already happening in California, where gun stores were (also not surprisingly) not classified as “essential”. I rather doubt any Texas municipality would want to expend that kind of effort when there are more important things to do, but they could if they chose to. The whole thing is ridiculous, but here we are.

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Electric scooter injuries have surged along with their popularity in the United States, nearly tripling over four years, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Nearly 40,000 broken bones, head injuries, cuts and bruises resulting from scooter accidents were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 2014 through 2018, the research showed. The scooter injury rate among the general U.S. population climbed from 6 per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000. Most occurred in riders aged 18 to 34, and most injured riders weren’t hospitalized.

For the study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed U.S. government data on nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms.

“Improved rider safety measures and regulation” are clearly needed, the researchers said.

See here, here, and here for previous studies, and here to see this one. Clearly, helmets are going to have to be mandated, and from there it’s going to be up to cities to figure out how to safely incorporate these things into their transportation infrastructure. Bikes have been around for a long time and we’ve mostly figured them out, but scooters are new and sexy and are being pushed by Silicon Valley startups, so there are a lot of bumps in the road still to come. Hopefully we can begin to bend the curve on this. And no, I have no idea what the status of scooters coming to Houston is. Maybe that will be on an upcoming Council agenda. Assuming that scooter expansion is still the plan for these companies, which may not necessarily be the case any more. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any news lately. CNet has more.

Texas is on track to pick up three more Congressional districts

Put an asterisk next to this, as the actual Census will need to bear that out.

The U.S. population continues to shift south and west, according to new Census Bureau data that offers the clearest picture yet of how the 435 congressional seats will be distributed among the 50 states.

The latest numbers, released Monday, represent the final estimates from the government before next year’s decennial Census, which will determine how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state will have for the next decade. That reapportionment, expected in December 2020, will kick off the year-and-a-half-long process of redrawing congressional-district maps — still in many states a brazen partisan battle that makes strange bedfellows, unplanned retirements and intense member-versus-member races, especially in states poised to lose seats.

“The first two years of any decade when districts are drawn produce the whitest knuckles in Congress,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who led House Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2012 cycle. “People are trying to hold onto their seats at all costs.”

According to projections from Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, 17 states are slated to see changes to the sizes of their delegations, including 10 that are forecast to lose a seat beginning in 2022.

The biggest winners appear to be Texas and Florida, which are on track to gain three seats and two seats, respectively, according to the projections. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina are estimated to add one seat, as is Montana, which currently has just one at-large seat.

Meanwhile, 10 states are on track to lose one seat: Rhode Island, West Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Illinois and California, which would drop a House seat for the first time in its 169-year history.

[…]

The looming reapportionment brings into sharper focus the high stakes surrounding the partisan battle for control of state legislatures and the fight to ensure an accurate Census count.

Some states, such as Rhode Island and California, are actively working to avoid an undercount. Other state governments, such as Texas, have not made similar investments.

In his projections, Brace is using the estimates released Monday by the Census Bureau to predict what the states’ populations will be next year, when the Census is taken. Other estimates, which simply apportion House seats according to the 2019 estimates, show smaller gains for Texas and Florida, where the population has been booming year-over-year this decade.

Brace also noted he’s unable to take into account the accuracy of the Census, which will be a major factor in determining the final reapportionment. “We’ve seen it over the decades: Less and less people are likely to participate in the Census,” he said. “That participation rate has gone down each 10 years.”

Moreover, unsuccessful attempts by President Donald Trump and his administration to include a citizenship question on next year’s Census have advocates worried that millions of residents, especially nonwhites, won’t fill out the Census. That could negatively impact the count in heavily Latino states like Texas, where Democrats are plotting a political comeback — if they can get a seat at the table in redistricting.

How we are handling the Census has always seemed like a key aspect of this, but I admit I may be overestimating its impact. The rubber will be meeting the road soon enough, and we’ll have the official verdict in a year’s time. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be tumultuous no matter what happens. Daily Kos has more.

CNN/SSRS: Trump 48, Biden 47

Time for a non-Mayoral poll. The story is about results, primary and general, in both California and Texas, so forgive the abrupt opening sentence.

In Texas, however, it’s a different picture, with Biden holding wide leads across nearly every major demographic divide among those likely to vote in the primary there. The former vice president also tops as best able to handle each of the five issues tested by no less than six points.

Biden prompts the highest enthusiasm among Texas’ likely Democratic primary voters (44% say they would be extremely enthusiastic about a Biden nomination vs. 38% for Sanders, 31% for Warren and 23% for Buttigieg).

On the Republican side of the primary picture, Donald Trump appears unlikely to face a serious challenge in either state. In Texas, 86% of likely Republican primary voters say they back the President, in California, it’s 85%. Neither of his declared opponents reaches even 5% support in either state.

But Trump’s approval rating overall is underwater in both states. In California, just 32% approve of the way the President is handling his job, while 61% disapprove. In Texas, 42% approve and 50% disapprove. Trump’s numbers among independents (38% approve) and women (34% approve) in Texas would seem to suggest a warning sign for his general election prospects in a reliably GOP state.

But hypothetical general election matchups in the Texas poll point the other way.

Trump and Biden run about even in Texas among registered voters, 48% back Trump to 47% for Biden. Against three other Democrats, Trump holds significant leads: He holds 51% over Warren’s 44%, and Buttigieg and Sanders each have 43% support to Trump’s 50% in their matchups.

You can find all of the poll data here. To summarize the important bits:

A1. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president?


Total Respondents
                   Approve Disapprove No opinion
December 4-8, 2019     42%        50%         8%
October 9-13, 2018     41%        50%        10%

Registered Voters
December 4-8, 2019     48%        47%         5%
October 9-13, 2018     47%        48%         6%

Q12. If (NAME) were the Democratic Party’s candidate and Donald Trump were the Republican Party’s candidate, for whom would you be more likely to vote?


                      Biden  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       47     48

                  Buttigieg  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       43     50

                    Sanders  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       43     50

                     Warren  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       44     51

Those are relatively bad approval numbers for Trump, and better overall levels of support, at least in comparison to other recent polls. The same poll as noted shows Biden with a big lead in Texas in the Dem primary; I’m less interested in that. Otherwise, standard disclaimers apply – one poll, snapshot in time, lots of Dems haven’t made up their minds yet, etc – and that’s about all there is to say.

How other states are handling the Census

Better than we’re handling it.

So cities and states with big immigrant populations — like California and New York City — are supplementing the Census Bureau’s efforts like never before, allocating money to outreach groups that can go to communities spooked by the Trump administration’s efforts to identify non-citizens.

  • It’s an effort to coax everyone to fill out a census form, whether they’re in the country legally or not. (And, for the first time, people will be able to do this online.)
  • State, local and neighborhood groups “have the best chance of convincing people who are wary about participating in the census that it is safe,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has advised organizations and government associations on Census-related matters, tells Axios.

By the numbers: California is allocating $187 million — nearly 95 times what it did a decade ago, according to The Mercury News — far outspending every other state.

  • New York City has budgeted $40 million to Census outreach — the most ever — and plans to parcel it out to agencies and community-based organizations that will raise awareness about the Census.
  • New York state, meantime, will dedicate $20 million to Census efforts.
  • Utah is setting aside funds for the first time ever — with a big portion of the $1 million being spent to count “a relatively large population of children under 5,” PBS NewsHour reports.
  • Chicago plans to spend $2.3 million — the largest amount of funding the city has ever committed to the census, per the AP.

[…]

States have typically created advisory councils in preparation for the Census, called “Complete Count Commissions.” Those groups are busier and getting more attention now than in previous years.

  • “We’ve never had a context like this,” Beveridge says. “That means the efforts of the Complete Count Commissions are very important this year in areas like Florida, Texas, California and New York which have high number of immigrant households.”
  • Yes, but: Some of those states, including Florida and Texas, have taken no action at all yet. Efforts to bulk up Census outreach have failed to pass in those state’s legislatures.

We are well familiar with Texas’ utter indifference to the 2020 Census. It’s political malpractice, and also sadly par for the course from the state and legislative Republicans. Cities and counties are doing their part, but they deserved help from the state. To me, the best outcome of all this will be for accurate counts in the big urban and suburban areas, and undercounts in the rural areas. If that leads to Texas missing out on a Congressional seat it could and would have had, so much the better. Let there be some consequences for this, which can then be more effectively enforced in 2022. The only way to end bad behavior is for there to be a cost for engaging in it.

On paying college athletes

In case you missed this news out of California.

California is going to pass this likeness rights bill and boy howdy does the NCAA not like it

California Senate Bill 206, otherwise known as the Fair Pay to Play act, is rapidly approaching becoming law. The TL;DR of the legislation is that would allow athletes to monetize their name and likeness without penalty from the NCAA, something they currently cannot do. On Monday, the bill passed the California State Assembly by a 72-0 vote. On Wednesday night, it cleared the state senate. It is just waiting on the governor.

The NCAA responded on Wednesday with well, more threats. From USA TODAY:

“If the bill becomes law and California’s 58 NCAA schools are compelled to allow an unrestricted name, image and likeness scheme, it would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions”

As if this threat wasn’t enough, the letter also said the NCAA believes this bill is unconstitutional.

Ohio State and former UC Irvine president Michael Drake, in an interview with USA TODAY, echoed those threats, saying:

He said California schools “certainly” would be barred from participating in NCAA championships. Asked whether California schools would be able to compete against other NCAA schools at all, Drake said: “When the bill is passed and fully analyzed, we’d be more clear about its effect on other competitions. Let me say that I know specifically it would restrict their ability to compete in championships because the students would have been competing under a different set of rules.”

Let’s get one thing straight right now. The NCAA is not going to ban all the California schools

I get why they have to say this now, but this falls under a rich history of empty threats from university administrators, right up there with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney saying the Big Ten would drop to DIII if they had to share revenues with athletes.

Regardless of what NCAA rules state, lopping off California is a logistical and financial impossibility. Potentially locking themselves out of so many huge TV markets, plus losing so many potential teams for their marquee event, the NCAA Tournament (laugh all you want about the Pac-12, but California also includes regular NCAA participant Saint Mary’s, plus possible conference champions from the WAC, Big West, Big Sky and Mountain West), would make such a harsh penalty a nightmare for the NCAA’s business partners. Not to mention that penalty would also get thrown into the courts on antitrust grounds. USC and UCLA wouldn’t take that lying down.

If the state sponsoring this bill was like, Delaware, South Dakota, or Vermont, maybe the NCAA can get away with muscling them out. But not California (or Texas, or Florida, or any more major population center).

That’s from a newsletter published on September 11, so the bill is now law. There’s more there, and you can listen to a conversation with the author of that newsletter on the Slate podcast Hang Up and Listen (there are links with more info there as well). The podcast What Next also discussed it. The California law doesn’t take effect until 2023, in part to give the NCAA some time to address the issue on their own. It also means that other states will have time to pass their own laws, which may up the ante. Given the number of Division I colleges in Texas – I can think of at least 16 – our weird predeliction to be anti-California, and the stakes at play, I could imagine someone filing a bill to do the opposite here, to forbid any college athlete from making money in any fashion that isn’t currently allowed. Never underestimate our state’s ability to do the wrong thing. Anyway, I thought this was interesting. What do you think?

Ride sharing for kids

Yet another transportation option.

Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, a ride-hailing platform that hires vetted caregivers to drive children 6 and older, is now available in Houston.

“Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their careers and their children’s education and activities, but that tough choice is very real for countless families,” Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive, said in a news release. “HopSkipDrive wants parents to take comfort in knowing they have a caregiver to rely on to get their kids where they need to go, safely and without worry.”

Founded in 2014, HopSkipDrive hires drivers with at least five years of caregiving experience and a four-door vehicle no more than 10 years old. Each driver is vetted with a 15-point certification process that includes fingerprinting, background checks using FBI and Department of Justice database searches, driving record checks and in-person meetings.

A mobile app allows parents to book and track the rides. And HopSkipDrive’s Safe Ride Support, staffed with former 911 operators, EMTs, childcare specialists and parents, monitors every ride in real time.

Rides start at $17, which the company said is comparable to the hourly rate of a driving babysitter.

And in addition to helping busy families, HopSkipDrive works with more than 170 schools and districts nationwide to transport students who receive an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, who are homeless or who are in foster care and don’t fit into a bus route.

I’m a little skeptical of that “rides start at $17” bit, as they surely have higher operating costs than Uber and Lyft. What percentage of their rides cost that much, what is the range for more typical rides, what are the factors that go into the price (distance, time of day, etc), and so on. This story from last year, from when HopSkipDrive expanded to San Diego says they’d been in business for four years at that time. They started out as a Southern California operation, but scrolling through their Twitter feed I see they’re now in the DC area and Boulder, CO. I don’t have a need for this service, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone at my kids’ schools talk about using it. Is this something you might use?

It’s up to cities to make the Census work

The Lege shirked its duty, so this is what’s left.

Across the country, states are spending millions on making sure they get a better headcount of their residents. For example, California officials announced they are investing as much as $154 million in the 2020 census.

But not all states are making investments or even coming up with statewide plans to improve the count.

This year, Texas lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have created a statewide effort aimed at making sure all Texans are counted. Measures that would have ensured millions of dollars in funding for the census in Texas also failed.

“California is eating our lunch on the census,” says Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “And what’s that going to mean is more representation and more dollars for California than Texas.”

Beeson said this is particularly concerning because the state’s population has continued to explode. In fact, many of the country’s fastest growing cities are in the Lone Star State.

By some estimates, Texas is set to gain three to four congressional seats after the census. But that’s only if there’s an accurate count, Beeson says.

“Texas is already at a high risk of an undercount,” she says. “That is because we have a higher percentage of what are considered hard to count populations.”

[…]

In the absence of state action, though, local officials in Texas say it’s up to them now to make sure people are getting counted.

“So much in the state of Texas relies on local government stepping up,” says Bruce Elfant, the tax assessor and voter registrar for Travis County here in Austin.

Elfant is a member of the city’s Complete Count Committee, which is a city-led group focused just on improving the census in Austin.

“This is a time where local government is going to have to step up again and I am really proud of what we have here in Travis County,” he says.

Elfant says school districts and other municipal government — as well as local businesses — plan to pitch in. In fact, he says he the city plans to create a fund for the census. He says that fund will largely rely on money from the private sector.

And nonprofits say they are also gearing up to fill the gap left by state inaction, says Stephanie Swanson with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas.

“We realized that basically is going to be up to us,” she says. “We will have to rely on our cities and it will also fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and the community to get out the count.”

See here for the background. You’d think with the way our state leaders hate California that they wouldn’t want to let the Golden State outshine us like this, but here we are. Don’t ask me to explain what Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are thinking, that way madness lies. The city of Houston is doing its part. I just hope this collective effort is enough. The Chron has more.

Another look at scooter mayhem

From the Associated Press:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

As stand-up electric scooters have rolled into more than 100 cities worldwide, many of the people riding them are ending up in the emergency room with serious injuries. Others have been killed. There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count by The Associated Press of media reports turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned.

With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets. Despite the risks, demand for the two-wheeled scooters continues to soar, popularized by companies like Lime and Bird. In the U.S. alone, riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

[..]

Data on injuries or fatalities linked to scooters is hard to come by because the industry is so new. In Austin, Texas, public health officials working with the Centers for Disease Control counted 192 scooter-related injuries in three months in 2018. Nearly half were head injuries, including 15% that were traumatic brain injuries like concussions and bleeding of the brain. Less than 1% of the injured riders wore a helmet.

Bird, one of the largest scooter-sharing companies, dropped its scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 and within a few months riders were showing up at the emergency room, according to Dr. Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and co-author of one of the first peer-reviewed studies of scooter injuries. The following year, Trivedi and his colleagues counted 249 scooter injuries, and more than 40% were head injuries. Just 4% were wearing a helmet.

“I don’t think our roads are ready for this,” Trivedi said.

Bird and Lime both recommend that riders wear helmets, and they’ve handed out tens of thousands for free. But last year, Bird successfully fought a California proposal that would have required helmets for adults, maintaining that scooters should follow the same laws as electric bikes that don’t require adult helmets.

Bird says helmet requirements are off-putting to riders and could lead to fewer scooters on the road. Almost counterintuitively, the company argues that it’s better to have more riders than less because it forces drivers to pay attention to them.

“There’s a safety in numbers effect, where the motorists know that there’s people out on the street, so they act accordingly,” said Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird.

Getting people to wear helmets is a challenge. Riders don’t want exposure to lice or germs that could be found in shared helmets, and many make a spontaneous decision to scoot while they’re already out and about.

You can add this to the Austin study, which is now beginning to paint a consistent picture. Here’s the problem as I see it: Scooters on sidewalks are a danger to pedestrians, while scooters on roads are a danger to themselves, with worse potential consequences. They’re all right on bike paths and bike trails, as long as those are not used by pedestrians, but there aren’t enough of them to support the scooter business model. I don’t know how they’re supposed to fit into an urban street system. There’s something to be said for the “safety in numbers” effect – the same is known to be true for bicycles – but how many scooters will there need to be to get to that effect, and how long might that take? I just hope that we can figure out some better strategies to minimize the damage until we get there.

(That definitely means making helmets mandatory. I mean, come on.)

In case you thought scooters were not enough of a menace

How do pogo sticks grab you?

San Franciscans may soon be able to bounce their way around town, if a Swedish-based mobility company has its way.

Earlier this month, start-up company Cangoroo announced plans to deploy hundreds of pogo sticks in select cities to directly compete with electric scooters as a transportation option.

Cangoroo officials said they plan to first launch their pogo sticks in the Swedish cities of Malmo and Stockholm sometime this summer.

After that, they would deploy the sticks in both London and San Francisco.

[…]

[Cangoroo CEO and co-founder Adam] Mikkelsen said Cangoroo would be ready to work with city officials, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, on regulations and safety before launching the product.

“We don’t have specific details about this company but we will review any new transportation service to ensure compliance with existing laws,” SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said in a statement.

My sister-in-law, when she was a kid, managed to bite through her lower lip as the result of a pogo stick mishap. Maybe pogo stick technology has advanced in the last thirty or forty years, but still. Good luck with those safety regulations, is what I’m saying. What do you think is the over/under on when these things show up in Austin?

Lege passes on helping with the Census

Typically short-sighted.

But in a time when the census is tinged with partisan politics — mostly over Trump’s proposed inclusion of a citizenship question — Texas lawmakers adjourned without taking action to ensure a complete count.

State Representative César Blanco, D-El Paso, and Senator Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed bills to create a committee that would develop a strategy to ensure everyone is counted. The bills also would have allocated money to offer grants for local outreach efforts such as town hall meetings, community events, newsletters and other promotional documents, and census worker recruitment. Neither of the bills was given a committee hearing.

The two Democrats also unsuccessfully attempted to apportion money in the state budget for census outreach. Blanco’s proposal called for $50 million for the statewide complete count commission and another $50 million to offer local community grants; Hinojosa’s rider asked for a much more conservative $5 million for grants. Neither made it to the final state budget.

“It’s disappointing that we lost our shot,” Blanco told the Observer. “It wasn’t a priority for this legislative body, unfortunately.”

[…]

Texas could gain up to three new congressional seats after the 2020 Census, more than any other state stands to gain, but an undercount could cost Texas those potential seats. That shift in political power could be significant as the state shows signs of turning blue.

Many Texas Republicans believe it’s up to the U.S. Census Bureau to shoulder costs for census outreach, Blanco said, but the bureau has been underfunded by a total of $200 million since 2012. Supporters say the money is an investment that should return more than the upfront costs. That’s why more than half of states have made their own plans to ensure an accurate count of their populations in 2020. California has allocated more money for census outreach than any other state, with $100 million for 2018-19 and another $54 million proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom for 2019-20.

“If we don’t step up, the reality is California’s going to eat our lunch,” Blanco said at a press conference in April.

Gotta say, if we miss out on one of the Congressional seats we’re projected to get because of an inadequate count, this is sure going to look foolish. I hope other cities follow Houston’s example and do their own outreach. I don’t understand the Lege’s penury on this, they spent plenty of money on other things, but here we are.

Senior stoners

Makes a lot of sense, really.

Most states now have legal medical marijuana, and 10 of them, including California, allow anyone 21 or older to use pot recreationally. The federal government still outlaws the drug even as acceptance increases. The 2018 General Social Survey, an annual sampling of Americans’ views, found a record 61 percent back legalization, and those 65 and older are increasingly supportive.

Indeed, many industry officials say the fastest-growing segment of their customer base is people like Atkin — aging baby boomers or even those a little older who are seeking to treat the aches and sleeplessness and other maladies of old age with the same herb that many of them once passed around at parties.

“I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older,” said Kelty Richardson, a registered nurse with the Halos Health clinic in Boulder, Colorado, which provides medical examinations and sells physician-recommended cannabis through its online store.

Its medical director, Dr. Joseph Cohen, conducts “Cannabis 101” seminars at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community for residents who want to know which strains are best for easing arthritic pain or improving sleep.

Relatively little scientific study has verified the benefits of marijuana for specific problems. There’s evidence pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but the study also concluded that the lack of scientific information poses a risk to public health.

[…]

People Lee’s age — 65 and over — are the fastest-growing segment of the marijuana-using population, said Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He believes more studies on the drug’s effects on older people are needed. And while it may improve quality of life by relieving pain, anxiety and other problems, he said, careless, unsupervised use can cause trouble.

“We know that cannabis can cause side effects, particularly in older people,” he said. “They can get dizzy. It can even impair memory if the dose is too high or new ingredients are wrong. And dizziness can lead to falls, which can be quite serious.”

Richardson said Colorado saw an uptick in hospital visits by older users soon after the state legalized cannabis in 2012. The problem, he said, was often caused by novices downing too many edibles.

I don’t often blog about stories from other states, but with the Lege in session and efforts continuing to expand marijuana legalization here, this seemed useful to note. I’ll say this much, the people described in this story – mostly white people over the age of 60 – is a pretty good representation of the Republican Party base here in Texas (and elsewhere, to be honest). Given that the single biggest impediment to loosening the marijuana laws in Texas is Dan Patrick, any real progress in the short term is going to have to come from his voters telling him they want to see progress on this front. Longer term, we can try to use this issue (among many others) to boot him out of office in 2022, but between now and then is at least one more legislative session. If you want better pot laws in this state, get your old relatives to call Dan Patrick’s office and tell him that’s what they want, too.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

A second win for plaintiffs in Census citizenship question lawsuit

It’s all up to SCOTUS now.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in “bad faith,” broke several laws and violated the constitutional underpinning of representative democracy when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to review Furman’s narrower decision, with arguments set for April 23, but may now need to expand its inquiry to constitutional dimensions.

[…]

Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify the decision.

He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said.

That would have probably reduced the representation in Congress — and thus in the electoral college that decides the presidency — of states with significant immigrant populations, notably California.

Because census data is used to apportion distribution of federal funds, an undercount would also have cheated these same jurisdictions, the judge said.

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

In reality, the “evidence establishes” that the voting rights explanation was just “a pretext” and that Ross “acted in bad faith” when he claimed otherwise.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is embedded in this Mother Jones story. I don’t have much to add to this other than it’s a big honking deal and would have a negative effect on Texas just as it would on states like New York and California that filed the lawsuits against it. You wouldn’t know that from the words and actions of our state leaders, though. USA Today and NPR have more.

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

Anti-Obamacare ruling appealed

The big non-Mueller story to follow for 2019.

Best mugshot ever

The Democratic coalition of states battling Texas over the fate of the Affordable Care Act has formally begun the process of challenging a Dec. 14 decision ruling the law unconstitutional in its entirety.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who’s leading the charge, filed a notice of appeal Thursday morning before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The blue states will ask the federal appeals court to overturn last month’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who declared that President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is unconstitutional after Congress in December 2017 gutted one of its major provisions, the individual mandate.

The notice of appeal marks the next stage of what is expected to be a long-running litigation process that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. A Texas-led coalition of 20 states kicked the process off nearly a year ago by suing the federal government to kill the law; after the Justice Department sided partially with Texas, the California-led coalition of states stepped in to defend Obamacare in court.

“The wheels start turning as of now,” Becerra said on a press call Thursday morning.

See here and here for the background. Every legal scholar with a shred of integrity has denounced this ruling as ridiculous, but we all know that what matters is what five members of SCOTUS think is legal. One story I read about this noted that the coalition of states defending Obamacare picked up an ally after the 2018 election, the new Attorney General of Colorado. One can only wonder what might be happening today if we could have added a new Attorney General of Texas to this. Alas, we’ll have to file that under What Might Have Been.

The hearing for the lawsuit to kill Obamacare

Here we go again.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

At the hearing Wednesday, Texas aimed to convince U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to block the law across the country as it continues to fight a months- or years-long legal case that could land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citing rising health care premiums, Texas says such an injunction is necessary to preserve state sovereignty and to relieve the burden on residents forced to purchase expensive insurance coverage. California counters that temporarily blocking or ending the law would cause more harm to the millions of people insured under it, particularly the 133 million people the state says enjoy the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions. The U.S. Department of Justice, which has taken up many of Texas’ positions in the case, nonetheless sided with California, arguing that an immediate injunction would throw the health care system into chaos.

[…]

Inside the courtroom, where protesters’ shouts were inaudible, Darren McCarty, an assistant attorney general for Texas, argued that “the policies, the merits of the ACA are not on trial here” — just the legality. In that legal argument, McCarty leaned heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, which upheld the law by construing the “individual mandate,” a penalty for not purchasing insurance, as a tax that Congress has the power to levy. Texas argues that after Congress lowered that fee to $0 in a slate of December 2017 tax cuts, the fee is no longer a tax and thus no longer constitutional. With it must go the rest of the law, the state claims.

“There is no more tax to provide constitutional cover to the individual mandate,” McCarty said. “Once the individual mandate falls, the entire ACA falls.”

California countered that a tax can be a tax even if it doesn’t collect revenue at all times. And, attorneys for the state claim, even if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, the court should let lie “hundreds of perfectly lawful sections,” argued Nimrod Elias, deputy attorney general for California.

The case will likely turn on that question of “severability”— whether one slice of a law, if ruled unconstitutional, must necessarily doom the rest. O’Connor, who nodded along carefully throughout the hearing, lobbed most of his questions at the California attorneys, and many of them focused on whether the various pieces of Obamacare can be unentangled.

Elias said that in the vast majority of cases, the Supreme Court acts with “a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” leaving in place most of a law even if one provision must be struck. The Texas coalition pointed to a more recent case in which the high court struck an entire law based on a narrow challenge.

O’Connor — a George W. Bush-appointee who has ruled against Obamacare several times, albeit on narrower grounds — also honed in on the question of legislative intent. Texas argued that the individual mandate was a critical piece of the law’s original version. But California argued that in 2017, in gutting the individual mandate without touching the rest of the law, lawmakers made it clear they wanted the law to persist without that provision.

“Would the legislature prefer what is left in statute to no statute at all?” Elias questioned. “We know what Congress intended based on what Congress actually did.”

See here and here for some background. Justin Nelson was at the hearing as well, pressing his attack on Paxton for his ideological assault on so many people’s health care. That really deserves more coverage, but the fact that most everyone outside of Paxton’s bubble thinks his legal argument is ridiculous is probably helping to keep the story on a lower priority. (Well, that and the unending Wurlitzer shitshow that is the Trump administration.) I mean, I may not be a fancypants lawyer, but it sure seems to me that eight years of Republicans vowing to repeal Obamacare plus the entire summer of 2017 trying to repeal Obamacare plus the abject failure to repeal Obamacare would suggest that the Republicans did not intend to repeal Obamacare with the bill that they finally did pass. If they could have they would have, but they couldn’t so they didn’t. I don’t know what else there is to say, but we’re going to have to wait till after the November elections – wouldn’t be prudent to do that before people voted, you know – to find out what this hand-picked judge thinks. Ken Janda, the Dallas Observer, and ThinkProgress have more.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

[…]

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”

[…]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

Uber drivers sue over employment status

This will be worth watching.

Lawyers for 19 Texas drivers for Uber on Friday filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Houston, claiming the ride-hailing app company’s oversight and control of supposedly independent drivers is so pervasive, they should be considered employees.

If successful, the lawsuit could mean the thousands of local drivers for the company suddenly would be Uber workers instead of independent contractors, upending what some have considered an innovative business model and others have called modern-day servitude.

“The primary issue is, are these guys employees or independent contractors,” Houston lawyer Kevin Michaels said. “Uber tracks every move that a driver makes… As long as they are on the app, they are under Uber’s control.”

Uber officials Friday afternoon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lawyers said in the filing to the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Texas, the drivers made less than minimum wage when their time awaiting fares is calculated, despite the company’s claims in promotional materials that drivers could earn $100,000 a year.

“Given the current fare structures, an individual would have to drive an exorbitant number of hours on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to even approach gross fares totaling this amount, much less earn this amount,” the lawyers wrote. “Uber knew such statements were fraudulent and misleading and also knew that individuals would rely on such misrepresentations when deciding to become Uber drivers.”

[…]

The lawsuit filed Friday makes claims similar to those in various courts across the nation. A number of cases in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and other states already have drawn wide attention that could put the question on a path to the U.S. Supreme Court, should various circuit courts rule in different ways.

“It is definitely going to be years,” said Wilma B. Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board.

It is the second lawsuit filed on behalf of drivers by Michaels. The first, filed by three drivers, prompted Friday’s filing, which adds claims that drivers should be considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

As noted, there are several of these lawsuits around the country. I think the California one is the oldest, but none have had any decisions rendered as yet. I can’t say I actually believe the drivers will win, but who knows what could happen. The DMN has more.

Video fraudsters in trouble again

In California this time.

Right there with them

California prosecutors on Tuesday charged two anti-abortion activists who made undercover videos of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood with 15 felonies, saying they invaded the privacy of medical providers by filming without consent.

The charges against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress come eight months after similar charges were dropped in Texas.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a longtime Congressional Democrat who took over the investigation in January, said in a statement that the state “will not tolerate the criminal recording of conversations.”

Prosecutors say Daleiden, of Davis, California, and Merritt, of San Jose, filmed 14 people without permission between October 2013 and July 2015 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and El Dorado counties. One felony count was filed for each person. The 15th was for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy.

[…]

Daleiden and Merritt had previously been indicted in Texas on similar charges in January of 2016, but all of the charges were eventually dropped by July as prosecutors said a grand jury had overstepped its authority. The grand jury had originally been convened to investigate Planned Parenthood, but after finding no wrongdoing turned around and indicted Daleiden and Merritt instead.

The California charges stem from recording people without their knowledge, which is a crime in some states but not in others. The charges here were the result of creating phony drivers licenses to back up the aliases they used. The circumstances under which the Harris County indictments were dropped remain somewhat fishy, but I suppose it was just a matter of time before these two clowns got into trouble again. It’s what happens when everything you do is based on a lie. Think Progress, the Current, and Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, who has a thorough and nuanced look at the California law in question, have more.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

Uber moves driverless car pilot to Arizona

This happened right before Christmas, so I’m just catching up to it now.

The day after California regulators shut down Uber’s self-driving car program in San Francisco, Uber on Thursday packed up its autonomous vehicles and hauled them to Arizona, vowing to resume testing there.

The move was a quick rebound by Uber after its pilot program in San Francisco fell apart after just one week. Instead of giving in to California regulators and applying for a $150 permit to test its self-driving cars on public roads, Uber on Thursday once again signaled it doesn’t need to play by its home state’s rules.

“Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “We’ll be expanding our self-driving pilot there in the next few weeks, and we’re excited to have the support of Governor Ducey.”

The company released photos showing its silver Volvo SUVs loaded onto the back of a semi truck owned by Otto — the autonomous trucking startup that Uber acquired in August.

[…]

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday welcomed the self-driving Ubers to his state, where they will not need a special permit to drive on public roads, and positioned California’s neighbor as a welcoming alternative for Uber and other disruptive innovators.

“While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses,” he wrote in a statement. “California may not want you, but we do.”

Ducey last year signed an executive order supporting the testing and operation of self-driving cars and establishing a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee to advise officials on how to advance the progress of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars are treated the same as any other vehicle in Arizona, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait wrote in an emailed statement.

“We hope this cooperation and common-sense approach, combined with this state’s favorable climate, encourage even more companies to test autonomous vehicles in Arizona,” he wrote.

See here for the background. Arizona’s permissive approach is certainly one way to do this, though one wonders what their response will be if Uber decides that even their rules are too restrictive and so it will just ignore them as they had done in California. It should also be noted that there are some twenty (!) other companies testing driverless cars in California now, following the rules Uber refused to comply with. One presumes Uber will eventually want their cars to operate in CA, so either they’ll have to suck it up or get the US Congress to pass a law requiring all states to allow them to operate as they see fit, much like they want the Lege to do to cities in Texas. I wonder if Ken Paxton will file a lawsuit over the egregious federal interference with states’ rights if that happens. The Fiscal Times, Engadget, the Guardian, and the Washington Post have more.

Uber pulls driverless cars from San Francisco

Score one for the California DMV.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars off San Francisco’s streets Wednesday after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their registrations, effectively ending the company’s controversial pilot program after just one week.

The move marked a dramatic end to Uber’s standoff with state regulators over the San Francisco-based company’s insistence that it did not need a permit to test its self-driving cars, even though the state said it did and other companies testing such cars have complied. It’s not clear when or under what conditions self-driving Ubers might return to California’s roads.
“We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, “but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The DMV’s crackdown was a setback for Uber in what many viewed as the ride-hailing giant’s attempt to re-write California’s autonomous vehicle rules. The $68 billion company caught state officials by surprise when it launched its fleet of self-driving vehicles on San Francisco roads last week. After being forced to bow to state regulators, Uber said Wednesday that it has no plans to apply for a permit, but is “open to having the conversation.”

By revoking the registrations for all 16 of Uber’s self-driving cars in California, the DMV made good on a previous threat to shut down the company’s unauthorized pilot program. The company has been running a similar pilot program in Pittsburgh since fall without major incident.

“Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else, through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted,” a DMV spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto also sent a letter to Uber, promising that the department fully supports the autonomous technologies.

“We are committed to assisting Uber in their efforts to innovate and advance this ground-breaking technology,” the director wrote. Though the state’s letter indicated that Uber had expressed interest in applying for a permit, the company was non-committal late Wednesday.

[…]

Uber’s decision to take its cars off the streets came as growing numbers of people expressed concerns over the vehicles’ safety.

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he saw self-driving Ubers make multiple illegal and unsafe “right-hook” turns across bicycle lanes during a test ride before the program’s launch last week.

“Those vehicles are not yet ready for our streets,” Wiedenmeir wrote in a post on the coalition’s website.

See here for the background. The Guardian goes into more detail about the safety concerns.

Concerns are mounting about how the cars behave in dense urban environments, particularly in San Francisco, where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day across more than 200 miles of cycling lanes.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has released a warning about Uber’s carsbased on staff members’ first-hand experiences in the vehicles. When the car was in “self-driving” mode, the coalition’s executive director, who tested the car two days before the launch, observed it twice making an “unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane”.

That means the car crossed the bike path at the last minute in a manner that posed a direct threat to cyclists. The maneuver also appears to violate state law, which mandates that a right-turning car merge into the bike lane before making the turn to avoid a crash with a cyclist who is continuing forward.

“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” said coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy, noting that the group warned Uber of the problem. Company officials told the coalition that Uber was working on the issue but failed to mention that the self-driving program would begin two days later without permits, he said.

“The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch,” he said, “shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”

Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler told the Guardian in an email that “engineers are continuing to work on the problem”, and said that the company has instructed drivers to take control when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane. She did not respond to questions about how the cars, Volvo XC90s, detect cyclists and what kind of training and testing the firm conducted before implementation.

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has raised formal objections to partially automated vehicles, said research raises serious alarms about the ability of drivers to properly intervene in semi-autonomous cars.

“It’s very clear that people are not good at paying attention,” she said, adding, “We’re waiting for enough people to die for something to happen. It’s not a great way to make policy.”

Local advocates noted that the Uber cars have been caught doing four out of the top five causes of collisions or injuries in the city – running red lights, going through stop signs, unsafe turns and failing to yield to pedestrians.

“These behaviors we’re seeing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, “are some of the most dangerous behaviors in San Francisco that lead to traffic deaths and severe injuries.”

The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Relying on human backup for these self-driving vehicles is a bad idea that won’t work outside of a controlled environment because people in a driverless car aren’t going to be paying attention to the operation of that car, just like passengers in regular cars today don’t. On top of that, Uber did its usual disregard the rules and barrel ahead on their own thing, and this time the government agency they attempted to bypass stood firm. I have no doubt that this technology is coming – the Pittsburgh experiment is still going on, with no major incidents – but that doesn’t mean it will or should happen on Uber’s schedule. The fact that regulators need to catch up is a feature here, not a bug. Wired and the NYT have more.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

California is the new Texas

Or will be, as far as litigating against the federal government goes.

Xavier Becerra

Xavier Becerra

Gov. Jerry Brown has tabbed Rep. Xavier Becerra to serve as California’s interim attorney general, selecting the Los Angeles Democrat to fill a vacancy opened by the imminent departure of outgoing Attorney General Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate.

Assuming he wins confirmation by the Legislature – a strong possibility, given the 12-term Democrat’s role as a mainstay of Democratic and Los Angeles politics – Becerra would serve as California’s top law enforcement official through 2018, with an opportunity to serve for another eight years if he runs for the office. He would be California’s first Latino attorney general.

The election of Donald Trump as president has alarmed California Democrats and thrown into question the state’s liberal stances on issues like climate change and immigration. Brown’s choice of a liberal stalwart like Becerra reaffirmed the state’s future role as a pocket of resistance.

“Xavier has been an outstanding public servant – in the State Legislature, the U.S. Congress and as a deputy attorney general,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “I’m confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change.”

Referring to himself as “the son of immigrants” who is motivated to “fight for working families like the one I grew up in,” Becerra said in a statement that he had accepted Brown’s offer and summarized his liberal bona fides.

“I have been part of some of the greatest debates confronting our nation, from opposing the Iraq War, to fighting to help Americans recover from the Great Recession, to launching the bipartisan immigration talks and helping write our nation’s health security law,” Becerra said, adding that “California right now is ahead of the country when it comes to clean energy, common sense treatment of immigrants, real health security and so much more.”

[…]

In a conference call with reporters, Becerra said he would be “vigorous in defense of what we’ve done” to expand clean energy, protect parts of the federal health care law that Republicans seek to dismantle and preserve efforts toward “criminal justice reform” that seek to protect “young men of color.”

“We have policies in place that probably won’t pass at the federal level for another five, 10, 15 years,” Becerra said. “If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us.”

And in the face of Trump’s vow to deport millions of immigrants with criminal records, Becerra appeared to back California’s efforts to prevent removal of unauthorized immigrants who pose no threat to public safety.

“No one who goes to a grocery store to shop should believe the state of California is going to do anything to keep them from going home to see their kids if they’re just being regular, hardworking individuals,” Becerra said. “You’re talking to the son of immigrants, and I’m going to do everything I can to give that child of immigrant parents every chance I had.”

Hire some good litigators, that’s my advice. I’ve said before, I don’t care for having district court judges provide another veto on the federal government. It just doesn’t strike me as a good way to run a government. That said, if this is how the game is played these days, I see no reason to unilaterally disarm. I look forward to the howls of protest from the likes of Ted Cruz when state or even local action overrules a federal mandate. I can’t wait to hear what the principle is for that. Daily Kos has more.