Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Chris Hollins

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

Abbott officially extends early voting for November

It’s just by a week, but at least the announcement has been made early.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday extended the early voting period for the November election by six days, citing continued challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Early voting for the Nov. 3 election will now begin Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19. The end date remains Oct. 30.

The extension of the early voting period is not a surprise. During a TV interview in late May, Abbott said he would add more time to the early voting period for the November election — as he did for the primary runoff election earlier this month — but did not elaborate.

Last week, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins asked Abbott to provide more details so that election officials could have enough time to prepare. In a letter to the governor, Hollins requested that Abbott move the start date to Oct. 13 at the latest.

[…]

But the Monday announcement from the governor gave eligible mail-in voters more time to turn in their completed ballots in person if they would like to do so. Current law allows those voters to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s latest move expands that option to the entire early voting period.

Democrats said Abbott’s latest moves were still not enough to create a safer environment for voting in November.

“Abbott’s decision to extend early voting by six days is exactly like his COVID-19 response: the bare minimum and not fully thought through,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. I certainly would have preferred a second extra week of early voting, but this is what we’re gonna get. Note that the extra week actually starts on Tuesday, because Monday the 12th is a holiday (Columbus Day), and early voting doesn’t happen on national holidays because some buildings that are used for early voting are closed.

The extra days for early voting will help, not as much as it could have, but it will help. And god knows, we really better be in an improved position with the virus by October, or we’ll have a whole lot of other big problems to be concerned with. I would expect that election administrators will try to extend voting hours where possible, and hopefully will work to have as many locations open as possible. The restriction on mobile voting sites still sucks and was an otherwise pointless attack on voting access, but there remains unresolved litigation about that, so who knows. The ability to drop off mail ballots in person any time during early voting (confession: I hadn’t known about the prior restriction on that) is good, and I’ll bet Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sets up numerous dropoff locations.

This is the situation we have, and we have to make the best of it. Apply for a mail ballot if you’re 65 or older or if you believe you meet the disability requirement. Plan when and where you will vote, to try to avoid using the busier sites. Volunteer now to work the election if you can. Don’t be the jerk who refuses to wear a mask when voting. And keep raising hell about the overall response to the pandemic, because getting the infection rate down is by far our best friend. You can read Chris Hollins’ press release in response to this announcement here.

County Clerk touts curbside voting, asks for more early voting

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Friday, July 10, the last day of Early Voting during the July Primary Runoff Elections, the Harris County Clerk’s Office piloted Drive-Thru Voting as an additional option for voters to cast their ballot safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time in Texas history that an elections office held Drive-Thru Voting, where many voters at a time could cast their ballot without leaving the comfort and safety of their car.

“My number one priority is to keep voters and poll workers safe,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “The feedback we received from the Drive-Thru Voting pilot proves that voters felt safe exercising their right to vote and that it was an easy and efficient alternative to going inside a voting center. We are exploring options to expand this program for the November General Election at select locations as another method of voting during COVID-19.”

Voters raved about the experience. Of the 200 voters who voted at the Drive-Thru Voting site, 141 completed an optional survey reviewing the new service. Some wrote that Drive-Thru Voting was “easy to use” and others cited how the service “made voters feel safe.” One respondent even wrote that it was their “best voting experience EVER!”

Voters would overwhelmingly use the service again and recommend it to others. When asked on a scale of 0 through 10, with 10 being extremely likely, whether they would consider using the same service if it is provided again in the future, voters on average gave a score of 9.70. On the same scale, when asked whether they would recommend Drive-Thru Voting to another voter, voters on average gave a score of 9.66.

Fear of exposure to COVID-19 was the top reason for using Drive-Thru Voting. When asked why voters chose to vote using the Drive-Thru Voting service as opposed to the traditional walk-in voting method, 82 (58%) cited worries about health and safety in the midst of the pandemic. Other frequently mentioned reasons included the convenience of the service and pure curiosity about the experience of Drive-Thru Voting.

Drive-Thru Voting was piloted from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM on Friday, July 10th, 2020, at Houston Community College – West Loop.

There’s a video at the link if you want to see it for yourself. Curbside has been done in some other locations, and it was specifically discussed as an option, in a much larger and more ambitious context, in this Chron story from April, by poli sci professor Bob Stein. There are limiting factors to doing this – the equipment is difficult to move, it’s labor intensive, and those combine to make the process slow things down for other voters, at least when this is done on an ad hoc basis. Done like this, where there’s a set number of designated locations for curbside might be more feasible, depending on how many people want to use it. I don’t want to come off like Debbie Downer here, this is a great example of outside-the-box thinking, it’s just that there are challenges that would need to be addressed to do this at anything approaching scale.

One thing that everyone would agree worked well for the July runoffs was expanded early voting. Hollins also sent a letter to Greg Abbott to remind him that he promised us more early voting in November as well.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the early voting period for the November general election to ensure residents can cast ballots safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor Wednesday, Hollins asked for at least one additional week of balloting, and urged Abbott to set a schedule by the end of July. Early voting is scheduled to begin Oct. 19; Election Day is Nov. 3.

“It is crucial that elections officials and voters know the amount of time early voting will take place so that the many required complicated elections plans may be undertaken,” Hollins wrote. “Without that information, full planning and preparation for this important election cannot be undertaken.”

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. Hollins noted that Abbott added extra days of early voting during the July primary runoffs, which were rescheduled from May because of the pandemic.

See here for your reminder about Abbott’s promise, and here for a copy of Hollins’ letter, which footnotes the Texas Tribune story that reported on Abbott’s extended early voting promise. I’d like to see early voting extended by two weeks, starting on October 5, but I’ll settle for one is that’s all Abbott is willing to give. It’s the best way – well, the second best way, after expanded voting by mail, which we’re not going to get – to keep the voters safe. Hollins is right, the sooner Abbott makes good on his promise, the better.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

Today is Primary Runoff Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you vote if you currently have coronavirus?

There is one way, if it is approved.

Thousands of Harris County voters who recently have tested positive for coronavirus and now are quarantined should be allowed to vote online in the primary runoff election, County Attorney Vince Ryan argued in an emergency court filing Thursday.

The novel voting method has never been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

If approved by a state district judge, the estimated 10,000 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the July 2 deadline to apply for a mail ballot would be allowed to submit a ballot via email. Forcing infected residents to vote in person would risk “putting thousands of other voters at risk,” Ryan wrote.

“The effect of this is to leave thousands of Harris County voters with a choice: 1, violate their quarantine and risk exposing poll workers and other voters to a deadly virus, or 2, become disenfranchised and lose their constitutional right to vote,” Ryan said. “That is a choice no Texan should be forced to make.”

A hearing [was] scheduled in the 80th District Court for 4 p.m. Friday. Ryan filed the brief on behalf of County Clerk Christopher Hollins.

The Dallas County elections administrator in 2014 obtained a court order allowing residents quarantined by the Ebola outbreak to submit mail ballots via email.

The Texas Election Code also permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas.

[…]

Ryan said Harris County’s request follows COVID-19 elections guidance issued in April by Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, which said counties may want to consider seeking court orders to expand voting options for quarantined voters. A spokesman for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I admit, I did not know that this was a possible option. It makes sense, and in practical terms it’s likely that only a small number of people would actually vote in this fashion. I mean, even with record-breaking turnout in this primary runoff, we’re still going to fall short of ten percent of all registered voters in Harris County. More to the point, given that most of the people who would have voted in this election already have, we’re talking maybe two or three percent turnout among those who have not yet cast a ballot, so maybe 200 or 300 people total. I’d still take the under on that bet. But the principle is solid, and if the law allows for this, then by all means let’s do it. I assume we’ll get a quick ruling on this, I’ll keep my eyes open for confirmation of that and will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: And the answer is no.

A state district judge on Friday denied a request by Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins to allow thousands of voters who recently tested positive for coronavirus, and now are quarantined, to vote online in the primary runoff election.

The novel voting method never has been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Judge Larry Weiman, however, said he shared concerns raised by the Harris County Republican Party that online voting was not secure. Weiman, a Democrat, also said at the emergency telephone hearing that the county clerk had not produced an example of a voter being disenfranchised by exposure to coronavirus.

“The plaintiff hasn’t shown any injured party,” Weiman said.

[…]

The Harris County Republican Party and Texas Attorney General’s office argued against the plan. Assistant Attorney General Anne Mackin said Hollins’ proposal amounted to a “rewrite of the Texas Election Code,” which already provides ill voters a method to vote by mail after missing the application deadline, so long as they are able to physically produce a doctor’s note.

Hollins sought to have that requirement waived in favor of an emailed statement certifying a voter has been exposed to COVID, saying infected residents or members of their household risk infecting county employees by delivering a form to a public building.

“It’s inappropriate to substitute a new process,” Mackin said.

The Election Code permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas. Attorney and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, and attorney Kevin Fulton argued on behalf of the Republicans that method requires service members to use secure email addresses which allow elections administrators to verify their identities.

Weiman said he shared these concerns about security. He invited the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Election Code if lawmakers feel they are needed.

It was a nice idea while it lasted, but there would have been issues. The fact that there were no named voters asking for this is a legitimate point. It would have been very nice to be able to test something like this in a low-stakes primary runoff, in case it’s needed in November, but I think we probably do need to have the Lege address some issues first. There are ways to make this process secure, none of which I suspect would have been available now, and the need for a written-on-paper doctor’s note is obviously archaic. If this experience can serve as a template for updating the relevant bits of the election code, it will still have been a useful exercise.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day One: People seem to like this vote by mail thing

Big surprise, am I right?

Harris County voters cast more than 51,000 ballots Monday in the primary runoffs, an eye-popping total that exceeded turnout for entire runoff elections in some recent years.

Combined with a robust in-person turnout, voters had returned more than 43,000 mail ballots by Monday, the first day of early voting. The turnout nearly doubled the number of votes recorded on the first day of early voting in 2016, the most recent presidential election year. It also eclipsed turnout from the 2018 runoffs, when more than 34,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting.

The surge in voting was largely driven by voters in the Democratic primary, who accounted for 63 percent of the early runoff ballots Monday. And it came weeks after interim County Clerk Chris Hollins sent mail ballot applications to every voter who is 65 and older, which he said was aimed at keeping older voters “safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home.”

Even with concerns about a recent local spike in COVID-19 cases, however, in-person turnout outpaced that of recent election cycles as well. A total of 5,334 Democrats and 1,762 Republicans cast ballots at the county’s 57 polling sites Monday. That is up from the 2,963 recorded the first day of early voting in the 2016 primary runoffs and 4,564 during the midterms.

[…]

The uptick in turnout likley stems from a combination of people paying an unusual amount of attention to politics given their extra free time at home during the pandemic, and a heated political moment fueled by the virus and recent upheaval from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said Houston political analyst Nancy Sims.

“People are at home and they’re paying more attention. They’re not as active and distracted as they normally would be, so you’re seeing a little more interest,” she said. “And it’s just a much more intense year to pay attention to elections. The combination of the protests and covid have made people tune in and become more aware.”

Hollins’ move to send ballots to the roughly 377,000 Harris County voters who are 65 and older — about 16 percent of the voter roll — also helps explain the surge, Sims said. Demand for absentee ballots has increased as well, with about 122,000 ballot requests for the runoffs, compared to 51,065 such requests for the 2016 primary runoffs and 67,735 for this year’s March primary. About 95 percent of the 122,000 mail ballot requests have come from voters who are 65 and older, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

The comparison between the 2020 runoffs and prior elections is skewed by a number of factors. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott delayed the runoff from its original May 26 date until July 14, and doubled the number of early voting days from five to 10.

You can find the Day One early voting report here. As noted, I will generally be a day behind on these, so please bear with me. I’m not sure yet what kind of comparisons I’m going to provide for this, because primary runoff turnout can be so variable and doesn’t really tell you all that much, but I will do this to start off. Here’s a look at the share of the total vote that mail ballots were, in the March primary and now in the runoffs:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  11,571    6,819  18,390    62.9%
R primary  12,890    5,411  18,301    70.4%

D runoff   27,015    5,314  32,349    83.5%
R runoff   16,308    1,762  18,070    90.2%

So, in each case Dems have returned more mail ballots – and as the story notes, there are far more mail ballots left for Dems to return – but as a share of total ballots, Republicans are so far much more dependent on them. Make of that what you will. A statement from the Harris County Clerk is here, and the Texas Standard has more.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

The plan for the runoffs

Early voting for the primary runoffs starts in less than two weeks. Here’s what to expect.

Chris Hollins

Interim Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins is hoping to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor in the chaotic March primary election for July’s runoff balloting through a series of improvements he announced Monday.

Hollins said he would allocate polling machines to locations based on turnout, extend voting hours and improve a website showing wait times at polling places.

“This office will do everything it can to give every Harris County voter an equal say at the ballot box,” Hollins said.

The clerk’s office announced a 23-point plan Monday to ensure the July 14 primary runoff and November general elections are “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”

The runoff features 19 races between both parties, seeking to nominate candidates for seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature, well as such local posts as county commissioner, constables and state district judges. Early voting begins June 29.

[…]

Hollins, who said his team is “learning from the past,” said he has increased the number of voting machines. The clerk’s office also will open more polling sites for the runoff, 57 for early voting and 112 on Election Day.

Historical patterns suggest turnout is likely to drop significantly for next month’s runoff, especially among Democrats, who had a contested presidential primary on the March ballot. In 2016, the last contested presidential primary, Democratic turnout dropped 87 percent between the primary and primary runoff.

Yes, but as we’ve discussed before, context matters. There will be significant dropoff, no doubt about it, but the contested Senate primary runoff suggests that the floor for statewide turnout is higher than usual. Prepare for there to be more people than usual for a primary runoff, that’s my advice. Of course, some higher percentage of that turnout may come from mail ballots.

You can see the Clerk’s S.A.F.E initiatives here. Protecting the poll workers was given a high priority, as it should. The Clerk’s office says they’re doing well in recruiting poll workers for November, which will be the real test. Early voting starts June 29, and you can find all the locations here. Note that some are new, and some have changed, so be sure you check before you head out. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

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

No one is going to stop you.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

Christopher Hollins on Monday became the third Harris County clerk in three years, appointed to the post after the incumbent, Diane Trautman, resigned after 17 months because of unspecified health concerns.

He has pledged to hold the job only in an interim role, avoiding the potential distraction of running a campaign this fall. Still, the 33-year-old lawyer faces a difficult task in running the July primary runoff and November general elections — the latter likely to be the highest-turnout contest in county history — during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hollins said he grasps the scope of the challenge and is up to the task. Though he has no experience in elections administration and has never run for office, he said his background in government consulting will serve him well in his new role.

“Elections already are a really large task under normal circumstances,” he said. “And you add to that the concerns and complications that come with a global pandemic, and we have this massive undertaking ahead of us to make sure all the residents of Harris County are able to vote safely, conveniently, and with the confidence their vote is going to be counted.”

See here and here for the background. I doubt he’ll make any major changes in the short time he’ll have in the position – he’s retained Trautman’s elections staffers, which is good to hear – but I’m sure he’ll have a few ideas to implement. He also has to deal with the vote by mail issue:

Hollins said he lacks expertise in Texas election law, and will defer to the county attorney on mail voting. Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the county will let voters choose whether they qualify for a mail ballot.

“It’s up to the voter to decide,” Ray said Monday. “We’re not going to require any proof. We’re not going to require any explanation.”

This is consistent with the State Supreme Court ruling. The federal cases may change things, but for now this is where we are. If Chris Hollins can be a steady hand on the till for the next seven months, that will be plenty. I wish him all the best of luck.

Have you missed having Stan Stanart to kick around?

Well then, I have good news for you.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart will run again for his old job, he confirmed Wednesday, joining two other Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the November special election.

Incumbent clerk Diane Trautman, who defeated Stanart in 2018, announced she would resign May 31 because of undisclosed health concerns.

The Democratic and Republican parties must nominate candidates to fill the remaining two years of her term.

“I’ve got eight years’ experience, and the name ID necessary to win in November,” Stanart said in a phone call. “I’m calling precinct chairs and doing very well asking for their endorsement.”

Stanart’s announcement Wednesday was the result of a mix-up; he said he thought he was talking to a Harris County Republican Party precinct chair when a Houston Chronicle reporter called him. He said he had planned to go public with his candidacy next week.

The other Republican candidates to date are former Houston city councilman Bert Keller and former Harris County judicial candidate Michelle Fraga.

Emphasis mine. We’ve all missed that Stan Stanart touch around here, haven’t we? Not to mention the glorious headshot. I feel like he missed his calling as a spokesman for BrylCreem, but we must look forward from here.

Anyway. As the story notes, no Dems have publicly announced their interest in the nomination as yet. I expect Teneshia Hudspeth to throw her hat in the ring, but as yet I’ve heard nothing. I presume we’ll know more by the time of the next CEC meeting.

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed an attorney and Texas Democratic Party official as interim county clerk.

Christopher Hollins, vice finance chairman for the state party, will serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. Incumbent Diane Trautman, who was elected in 2018, announced May 9 she would step down because of health issues.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve Hollins. Five public speakers urged court members to choose Teneshia Hudspeth, Trautman’s chief deputy. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Hollins’ pledge to serve only on an interim basis factored in their decision.

Hollins was selected after 10 p.m., more than 12 hours after Commissioners Court convened, and was unavailable for comment.

He previously worked as a senior manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and intern at Goldman Sachs and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama administration, according to his personal website. He has never held elected office.

See here for the background. You can find Hollins’ Twitter here and his bio here. He released a statement later last night here, and the County Clerk’s office released one here. From skimming Facebook, the folks I read seem to be positive about him and his appointment. Clearly, the Commissioners wanted the Clerk to focus entirely on running the election and not running for their own election. That is certainly a reasonable position to take, and it means that we precinct chairs will get to pick a candidate of our choice. Fine by me.

Also mentioned in the story was Commissioner Ellis’ proposal about an appointed elections administrator, which was discussed but no action was taken. I saw somewhere that the Harris County Republican Party Chair was opposed to the idea, which is his right. My guess is that this is the end of it, but you never know. Campos, Stace, and The Texas Signal have more.