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Collin County

Giving a motion its proper due

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As you know, Ken Paxton really really wants to get his securities fraud case moved back to what he assumes are the warm and friendly confines of Collin County. The case was originally moved out of Collin County on the grounds that it would be hard to get a sufficiently impartial jury there, and so it has been in Harris County for the last million years, give or take a century. Then it looked like Paxton had scored a win, when Harris County Criminal Court Judge Robert Johnson ruled in favor of a Paxton motion to send the case back to Collin County, while also recusing himself from the case due to a potential conflict of interest, as the Attorney General’s office is representing the Harris County Criminal District Court judges in the bail practices lawsuit, for which they are named defendants. Johnson stepped down and fellow jurist Jason Luong was put on the case while Johnson’s ruling to move the case back to Collin County was appealed by prosecutors.

This presented a problem for Paxton, because prosecutors could ask Judge Luong to reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling, and thus possibly rule instead to keep the case in Harris County. So, Team Paxton moved to have Judge Luong recused from the case (he declined to recuse himself) on the grounds that the same potential conflict of interest that Judge Johnson cited in his own recusal would apply to Judge Luong as well. The prosecutors objected, on the grounds that there really isn’t a conflict of interest here, in part because the AG’s office is representing the Criminal District Court judges as an entity not as individuals – they are being sued in their official capacity, not as private citizens – and also because Paxton himself is not involved in the bail litigation. Last Friday, Administrative Judge Susan Brown ruled for the prosecutors, denying Paxton’s motion to remove Judge Luong from the case, and thus allowing Luong to revisit Johnson’s ruling to move it.

I assume this ruling can and will be appealed, but in the meantime, Team Paxton has filed a motion asking Judge Brown to reconsider her ruling. This is the legal strategy of saying “Are you sure you meant to rule that way? Here, let me give you the same set of facts and arguments as before but maybe emphasize them a little differently, and you’ll see it my way this time, right?” This means that the prosecutors have to respond to this motion, and so they did, with the tone of voice and general tenor one might expect in such a circumstance. When you start with a quote from the movie Dumb and Dumber and conclude with the canonical definition of the word “chutzpah”, it’s safe to say you feel confident in your position. In between, the prosecutors remind everyone that both Paxton and his lawyer have stated that 1) the AG’s office has been “working to remove [Paxton] from ‘active participation in matters in which a conflict may exist’” and 2) “[Judge Johnson] did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Now, assuming that Judge Luong does stay on the case so that he can rule on the motion to reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling to send the case back to Collin County (*), and assuming that he rules that Judge Johnson erred in his ruling and that the case should stay here, will the question of Judge Luong needing to be recused come up again? Probably, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime, enjoy this little exercise in the fine legal art of saying “You’ve got to be kidding me” as only lawyers can.

(*) It’s quite standard for a new judge to revisit consequential rulings made by a previous judge on a case. That’s why having Judge Luong reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling is not in the same category as asking Judge Brown to reconsider her own ruling.

Who knows what our positivity rate is?

From the We Still Suck At Data Department:

As schools begin to reopen and Gov. Greg Abbott faces pressure to relax shutdown measures, it is impossible to determine where Texas stands on a COVID-19 metric that has guided the governor’s decisions on when to tighten or loosen restrictions on businesses and public activity.

Over the past week and a half, the state began reporting coronavirus data from a backlog of 500,000 viral tests that officials say accumulated because of coding errors from Quest Diagnostics, Walgreens and CHRISTUS Health — all private entities that process the tests.

The result has been an ongoing miscalculation of the “positivity rate,” the rate at which people test positive for the virus.

Last week, it reached as high as 24.5 percent, and suddenly dipped back down again to about 11 percent this week as more backlogged tests were included in the data. Abbott has said a sustained positivity rate below 10 percent would allow for further reopenings in the state.

The influx of backlogged tests, dating as far back as March, has also exposed a convoluted reporting system that requires state officials to receive lab results, send them back to counties and wait for them to return to the State Department of Health Services before counting them.

The result is a mess of information reported recently to the public in “data dumps” that include test results from months prior, skewing statewide coronavirus statistics and positivity rates.

“The timing of it is horrible because it’s right at the beginning of opening the schools, when you want your data to be as accurate as possible, and it’s not,” said Darrell Hale, a Republican commissioner in Collin County.

The county on Wednesday pasted a disclaimer to its COVID reporting site declaring “no confidence” in the state’s numbers, which Hale said have ballooned in recent days even as lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined.

[…]

Abbott faulted private labs for the glitches, as well as technological issues in the state’s own reporting system, which did not have the capacity to process more than 48,000 tests per day until Aug. 1. The state did not disclose the issue as it built up throughout July, when as many as 67,000 tests were conducted each day.

It may well be that the private labs can’t keep up with the demand. But:

1. Greg Abbott knew about this problem for at least a few weeks without ever saying anything about it.

2. The positivity rate was and is one of Abbott’s key metrics that were supposed to guide how and when we reopened things. Greg Abbott is currently not allowing local health authorities to make their own decisions about whether it is safe to open schools even though the data that we all need to know what the risks are cannot be trusted.

3. Greg Abbott continues to support and defend the federal government and its completely disastrous response to the pandemic, even though the federal government is the one entity in the country that could have marshaled the responses to meet the demand for testing. Nearly six months into this crisis, the federal government, under Donald Trump, which Greg Abbott supports, has made zero headway on this issue.

So yeah. Our data sucks, we are reaping the consequences of that failure, and the responsibility for it in this state rests with Greg Abbott.

No new judge for Paxton

Sorry, Kenny.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is still fighting five-year-old felony securities fraud charges, has failed in his bid to kick a Democratic Harris County judge off his ongoing criminal case.

An administrative judge in Houston, Susan Brown, denied Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Jason Luong from the case, the Dallas Morning News first reported Friday.

It’s a loss for Paxton’s team in the long-running prosecution, which has yet to go to trial amid side fights over venue and prosecutor pay that have spanned years and bounced between numerous courts across the state. Paxton, a Republican, has maintained his innocence in the case, in which he is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it.

[…]

“We’re gratified that Judge Brown found that Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Luong was baseless,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors taking Paxton to trial. “We’re confident that Judge Luong will find that Paxton’s motion to keep from being tried in Harris County is cut from the same cloth.”

See here and here for the previous updates. Here’s that DMN story.

Luong, a Democrat, is the fourth judge to preside over Paxton’s case since the attorney general was charged in July 2015. The first judge to preside over the case recused himself early on. Paxton successfully argued for the recusal of the second judge, Tarrant County Republican George Gallagher, over his objections. The third judge to preside over the case, Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson, recused himself last month because the attorney general is representing him and several other judges in a lawsuit challenging the region’s cash bail system.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that Luong should be removed from the case for this same reason. The prosecutors, however, said Paxton wanted to recuse Luong because he could reverse Johnson’s decision, made just before his recusal, to move the case out of Harris County. The case was moved from Collin to Harris County in 2017 after the prosecutors argued that they would be unable to ensure a fair trial in Paxton’s backyard.

All righty then. What is unclear to me from these stories is whether or not Team Paxton can appeal this ruling. I’m sure if they can they will, all previous nattering about wanting to get their guy his day in court aside, but that is not addressed and they did not comment. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. I also assume any ruling Judge Luong may make on where the trial should be will wait until that happens, if it does. So we don’t yet know how much more time is on the clock before something substantial happens.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

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Defense attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose indictment for felony securities fraud is now more than five years old — are again asking for a different judge to oversee the case. It’s the latest turn in a long-delayed prosecution that has bounced all the way from a trial court in North Texas to the state Supreme Court in Austin, and now sits in legal purgatory in Houston.

Paxton’s attorneys wrote Thursday that Judge Jason Luong should recuse himself from the case because the attorney general’s office is representing him — among a group of about 20 Harris County district court judges — in an unrelated lawsuit over bail practices. Robert Johnson, who oversaw the case until recently, voluntarily recused himself from the case for that reason earlier this summer. A Houston appeals court reassigned the case to Luong late last month.

“Judge Luong’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned” because Paxton is defending him, Paxton’s attorneys argued in a filing this week.

[…]

The prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial shot back Friday, arguing that Luong should remain on the case.

“Because Paxton’s palpable fear that Judge Luong will follow the law and keep these felony cases in Harris County does not come within a time zone of meeting the Draconian burden required for recusal, his motion is without merit and should be denied,” prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer wrote.

And they noted that last month, Paxton’s attorney Philip Hilder told the Houston Chronicle that Johnson “did not need to recuse himself on the matter since … the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity.”

See here for the previous update. I don’t think the Paxton argument about a potential conflict of interest due to the bail lawsuit is completely without merit, but I do agree that it’s a thin reed. I mean, the AG’s office is basically defending the office of Criminal District Court Judge in this lawsuit, and Jason Luong just happens to be in that category. It’s Jason Luong in his official capacity, not Jason Luong, person of Texas. It’s true that Judge Robert Johnson agreed to recuse himself on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean other judges would agree with that position. It’s also true that the question could be made moot, either by Judge Luong making like Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren and filing a motion in agreement with the plaintiffs, or by the presiding judge in the bail case granting the motion to dismiss that was recently filed. Of course, a ruling on that motion could take months, and we needn’t wait that long. The point is, though, that there are other ways to resolve this conflict, if one agrees that there is a conflict.

And I too would point out that Team Paxton was just the other day talking about how their guy is ready for his day in court and that the prosecutors should quit fighting the effort to move the case back to Collin County so we can get this show on the road already. Funny how one’s perspective can change on that. It’s been pretty much entirely the work of Team Paxton and his political supporters that have caused this case to drag on for now more than five years. The DMN, in its reporting on this latest action, provides a handy timeline.

The prosecutors, Paxton’s lawyers added, are improperly trying for a do-over on this change-of-venue decision.

“It simply defies belief that the State can get two bites at the apple on the critical jurisdictional issue that Judge Johnson already properly ruled on by allowing a new judge who is similarly situated with Judge Johnson (i.e., both represented by the Texas Attorney General in the same case) to review Judge Johnson’s prior ruling. This is the ultimate appearance of impropriety.”

In their response, the prosecutors said Paxton’s own lawyers already undercut their argument when they told the Houston Chronicle last month that Johnson never needed to step off the case.

“He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office,” Paxton attorney Philip Hilder told the Chronicle.

A Collin County jury indicted Paxton in July 2015. Since then, his case has been repeatedly delayed by fights over where the trials should take place, how much the prosecutors should make and what judge should preside. Paxton’s defense team spent more than a year attempting to have the charges against their client thrown out. They failed.

Hurricane Harvey also delayed the case and many others in Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic could further push any possible trial back.

Paxton is charged with two first-degree felonies over allegations that he persuaded friends to invest in a McKinney technology company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he received 100,000 shares of stock. He also is charged with a third-degree felony, accused of funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being registered with the state. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded and fined Paxton $1,000 for this failure to register in 2014.

If found guilty, Paxton could face two to 10 years in prison for the third-degree felony and five to 99 years for each of the first-degree felonies, as well as fines. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

When I started writing this post, I began with the post title, and I was pretty sure that it was Paxton who had demanded a new judge in the past, but I wasn’t sure and I knew it would take a lot of archive-diving find an answer. I’m thankful the DMN did that work for me. Who wants to bet this case will still be active when the voters go to choose an AG in 2022?

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

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A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

Move to Collin County on hold, Paxton judge recuses himself

Stay with me here.

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The Harris County state district judge who handed Attorney General Ken Paxton a big win by moving his criminal case back to Collin County two weeks ago is now recusing himself because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

Now Judge Robert Johnson’s quick exit is leading the attorneys prosecuting Paxton to question the decision to move the case back to Paxton’s home county.

Johnson, who did not respond to requests for comment, made the venue change decision on June 25. A day later, he and all 22 other Harris County felony judges were added as defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the region’s bail practices discriminate against poor defendants.

The Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies and individual employees of the state and officially became counsel to Johnson and 19 other judges on July 1.

[…]

Prosecutors in the case have appealed the move to Collin County, and the First Court of Appeals on Tuesday granted a motion for a stay of the proceedings during the appeal.

One of the prosecutors, Kent Schaffer, says the recusal raises questions about when Johnson knew he had a potential conflict of interest. He said he plans to look into the issue and will continue to push for the venue change to be voided.

“If we can show that he was already in conversations with the AG about representation, he should have recused himself at that point,” Schaffer said. “If he had a conflict, he shouldn’t have ruled on it to begin with.”

Johnson said in court documents on Monday that he was recusing himself out of a concern that his “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” citing from the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Philip Hilder, an attorney for Paxton, said Tuesday that he has no doubt that Johnson’s decision to move the case should stand.

“The judge’s ruling was completely based in following the law and facts and (he) made the right decision by sending the case back to Collin County,” Hilder said. “He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Johnson had agreed with Paxton that the judge who moved the case to Harris County in 2017 did so after his term had expired and the decision therefore should not stand.

The case is out of Johnson’s hands for now until the appellate court rules — either upholding the move to Collin County or sending it back to his courtroom.

See here for the background. I agree that the addition of district criminal court judges to the bail reform lawsuit, for which they will be represented by the Attorney General’s office, is a complicating factor, and that it would have been better if Judge Johnson had either ruled or recused himself before that happened. I can’t quite articulate what the conflict of interest may be here, but as a matter of general principle it would be best to separate the two cases. Given the reasons why the case was moved in the first place, maybe moving it to Bexar or Fort Bend or some other large-but-not-Collin county is the better way to go; I’d guess no one was advocating such a position, however. As usual, this case gives me a headache, so I’m just going to leave this here and wait till the First Court of Appeals makes its ruling.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Collin County for the Paxton trial

Where it all began.

Best mugshot ever

Years after it was sent to Harris County, the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will move back to his native Collin County, a Harris County judge ruled Thursday.

Paxton, a Republican, was indicted in 2015 on felony securities fraud charges, but the case has yet to go to trial as side battles persist over the venue where he will be tried and the amount the special prosecutors will be paid.

A judge moved Paxton’s case to Harris County years ago, after prosecutors said they could not get a fair trial in Collin County, Paxton’s home and former district from his time in the state Legislature. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, now represents the region.

But Ken Paxton’s defense team argued last year that the judge who initially ordered the move to Harris County did not have the authority to do so, as his time overseeing the case had elapsed. The two attorneys prosecuting Paxton, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, disputed that at a December hearing and said the case belongs in Harris County. But Judge Robert Johnson, a Democrat, agreed with Paxton’s defense team in an order this week.

Wice pledged to appeal the decision.

“The only thing more wrong than the judge’s ruling is that it took him almost a year to make it,” he said. “We’re confident the court of appeals will set it aside and keep venue in Harris County where it belongs.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a full timeline of L’Affaire Paxton. Judge Johnson had said at that December hearing that he’d rule by the end of the month. I have no idea what happened with that, but here we are. As I said then, the only sure thing in all this is that it will eventually end up before the Court of Criminal Appeals. I don’t even have it in me to make a joke at this point. The Chron and the DMN have more.

The May elections will not happen

Not in May, anyway.

Citing the state’s stay-at-home order, the Texas secretary of state is instructing municipalities to delay their May 2 elections.

In an email to local election officials sent Thursday afternoon, the state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, said cities, towns and school boards that hadn’t pushed their upcoming elections to November “must take action to do so immediately” or risk facing a challenge in court.

“If you don’t move your May 2nd election, you are subjecting voters to health risks and potential criminal violations,” Ingram wrote. “Failure to postpone your election will put your election at severe risk for an election contest.”

[…]

Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday telling Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities. In announcing his order, the governor made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment. The order lasts until April 30. Early voting for municipal elections would have started before then.

Although election workers are included under the federal government’s guidance on essential workers, that would not include voters, Ingram said.

Earlier in the week, the Trib had a previous story about a handful of cities, school boards, utility districts, and the like that were still planning on having their May elections, despite the earlier admonition to put them off till November. I can understand the arguments for wanting to proceed as scheduled, especially for elections that would be expected to have miniscule electorates, but really there was no good justification for it. This was the right thing to do.

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

Will the Paxton case move back to Collin County?

Team Paxton is asking for that to happen.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge said Tuesday he will rule by the end of next month on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to move his felony securities fraud case back to his home county.

Judge Robert Johnson avoided getting into other issues raised in the case until he decides whether to send it back to Collin County, where it originated nearly four years ago.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer — who opposed Paxton’s motion to move the case — said after Tuesday’s hearing that he thinks Johnson “will make the right decision” and that he believes “with a high degree of certainty” that Paxton will go to trial by spring 2020.

[…]

The case has been delayed for nearly four years now for reasons ranging from the change of venue request to courtroom damage due to Hurricane Harvey to an ongoing disagreement between Collin County officials and special prosecutors over what they ought to be paid for their work.

It was Paxton’s political influence in Collin County that led a judge to move the case to Harris County in the first place. In 2017, Judge George Gallagher sided with prosecutors who argued that Paxton could not receive a fair trial in the county where many of his friends and political allies live and hold positions of power.

The Collin County District Attorney, for example, recused himself from the case because of a friendship with Paxton, a former state legislator.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that Gallagher exceeded his authority in changing the venue in the first place because his temporary assignment to the case had expired months before he made the decision.

They’ve also said that public attention on Paxton’s indictment has waned since 2016 when the case was the talk of “blogs, media and Facebook posts.” Plus, Collin County is better-equipped to take the case as well, they say, because the Harris County court system is already overburdened.

See here, here, and here for the background. Paxton’s argument seems pretty self-serving here, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. We all know Judge Johnson’s ruling will get appealed, all the way to the CCA, and that whole rigamarole will take a couple more years. We’re all going to be old and gray before this case is resolved.

After-deadline filing review: The Lege

Now we come to the State House, which is where most of the action will be in 2020. In 2018, much of the energy and focus was on Congressional races, to the point where some hand-wringing articles were written about the lack of focus and resources on the legislative races. Dems managed to win 12 seats anyway, and by now we all know of the goal of winning nine more to take the majority. Both parties, and a lot of big-money groups, are locked in on this. That’s where we are as we enter the primary season.

So with all that, see here, here, and here for previous entries. The top target list, or at least my version of it, is here. As before, I will skip over the Houston-area races and focus on the ones I haven’t been talking about. Finally, one correction to that post on Houston-area races: I have been informed, and a look at the SOS candidate info page confirms, the two would-be primary challengers to Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 have been disqualified.

The top targets: I will start with the districts that Beto carried, then move to the next tier.

HD64Angela Brewer, adjunct professor of communication studies at UNT and Collin College. You can see a short video of her talking to a local journo here. This district is in Denton County, where HD65 flipped in 2018.

HD66Sharon Hirsch, a retired Plano ISD employee who came agonizingly close to winning in 2018 (she lost by less than 400 votes, 0.6 percentage points), will try again. Physician Aimee Garza Lopez is also running to take on lousy incumbent Matt Shaheen.

HD67 – Four candidates are running (a fifth withdrew) in a Collin County district that Beto carried by five and a half points (incumbent Jeff Leach held on by 2.2 points). Attorney Tom Adair, attorney and El Salvador native who fled its civil war in the 80s Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, former teacher and legislative director Anthony Lo, and real estate agent Lorenzo Sanchez are your options.

HD108 – Another heartbreaking loss, as 2018 candidate Joanna Cattanach fell short by 220 votes, 0.2 percentage points. This was the most Republican district in Dallas County – in some sense, still one of the two most Republican districts, since there are only two left held by Republicans – and yet Beto took 57.2% here in 2018. Cattanach, a teacher, is running again, and she has company, from Tom Ervin and Shawn Terry, both businessmen.

HD121 – I feel like this district, which used to be held by Joe Straus, is a bit of an illusion. It looks less red than it is. Beto won it, but only with 49.7%, while new Rep. Steve Allison (who beat a wingnut in the 2018 GOP primary) took it by eight and a half points. I feel confident the Democratic Presidential candidate will carry it, and it may be Dem in some county races downballot, but much like HD134 has done I expect it to stick with its moderate Republican State Rep. Yeah, I know, I’m a buzzkill. Anyway, 2018 candidate Celina Montoya, founder of an educational non-profit, is back, and she’s joined by consultant and Moms Demand Action state leader Becca DeFelice and Jack Guerra, listed on the SOS page as a “small business owner”.

HD96 – We’re now in the districts Beto didn’t carry, though he only missed this one by 91 votes. I’ll be doing these in decreasing order of Beto’s performance. HD96 is one of five – count ’em five – target districts in Tarrant County, mostly thanks to Beto’s performance in 2018. This is now an open seat thanks to a last-minute decision not to file by Bill Zedler, one of the main anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Attorney Joe Drago has the task of flipping this one.

HD54 – Most of the pickup opportunities for Dems are in the urban and big suburban counties, where you would expect them to be. HD54 is one of three that are not. It’s in Central Texas, split between Bell (blue) and Lampasas (red) counties, it’s been a low-key swing district for some time, and Beto got 49.0% there in 2018. Likeithia “Keke” Williams is listed as the candidate – SD24 candidate Clayton Tucker had originally filed for HD54 but switched to the Senate race following her filing. I can’t find any online presence for her – Tucker mentions she’s a veteran, so we know that much – but I sure hope she gets the support she needs to run a serious campaign, because this is a winnable seat.

HD97 – Get ready for a lot of Tarrant County, with one of the other non-traditional targets thrown in. HD97 (Beto 48.6%) was blue for five minutes in 2008, after Dan Barrett won a special election to fill out Anna Mowrey’s term, then lost that November when Republican turnout returned to normal levels. It’s not been on the radar since, and incumbent Craig Goldman won by nine points last year. No one ever said this would be easy. Attorney and veteran Elizabeth Beck and Dan Willis, listed on the SOS page as an eye doctor, fight it out in March to take their shot in November.

HD14 – The second on the three “wait, where is that district again?” seats (it’s in Brazos County, for the record), HD14 put itself on the list by having Beto (48.4%) improve on Hillary Clinton’s performance (38.1%) by over ten points. Was that a fluke, either in 2016 or in 2018? I have no idea, but any district where Beto can get 48.4% is a district where we need to compete. Certified public accountant Janet Dudding and Raza Rahman, a senior at Texas A&M, have the honors of trying to do that competing.

HD92 – This is – or, thankfully and more accurately, was – Jonathan Stickland’s district. Need I say more? The air is fresher already. Steve Riddell, who lost by less than two points to Stickland in this 48.3% Beto district, and attorney and Air Force veteran Jeff Whitfield, are in it.

HD93 – Staying in Tarrant County, we have yet another anti-vaxxer’s district, this one belonging to Matt Krause. What’s in the water out there, y’all? It’s Beto at 48.2%, and Lydia Bean, sociology professor and non-profit founder and 2018 Dem candidate in the district, is back.

HD94 – Tarrant County has punched way above its weight in the Idiot Legislators department lately, thanks to a cluster of loudmouth anti-vaxxers. That group contains HD94 incumbent Tony Tinderholt, who entered the Lege by knocking out a leading pro-public education Republican incumbent, and who is a dangerous lunatic for other reasons. Tarrant County will be less toxic next session with Jonathan Stickland and Bill Zedler retiring, and taking out Tony Tinderholt would also help. Alisa Simmons, who does not have a campaign presence yet, has that task.

HD32 is a weird district. Located in Nueces County, it was a swing seat in the previous decade, finally flipped by then-rising star Juan Garcia in 2008, when Dems held a total of 74 seats. Todd Hunter, who had represented it in earlier years, won it back in 2010 and hasn’t faced a Democratic opponent since. With Beto taking 47.0% there, it’s again in the mix. Eric Holguin, the Democratic candidate in CD27 in 2018, is running in HD32 this cycle.

HD106 – We’re now very much into “stretch” territory, as the last four districts are all under 45% for Beto; this one, which was rehomed from Dallas to Denton County in the 2011 redistricting, scored at 44.2% for Beto and was won by first-term incumbent Jared Patterson with 58.3%. But if 2018 taught us anything, it’s that things can move in a hurry, so I don’t want to overlook potential possibilities, even if they’re more likely to be of interest in the longer term. Jennifer Skidonenko, who identifies herself as a mother and grassroots activist and who is clearly motivated by gun violence, is the candidate.

HD89 – This is the district that used to be held by Jodie Laubenberg. Remember Jodie Laubenberg? She was the author of HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that Wendy Davis filibustered and the Supreme Court eventually rejected. Have I elevated your blood pressure just a little? Good. Laubenberg went off to do whatever horrible things people like her do after they leave the Lege, and Candy Noble is her replacement in this Beto 43.5% district. Sugar Ray Ash, the 2018 Dem nominee who is a veteran, former postal worker, tax attorney, DMN endorsed, and all around interesting guy, is back for another shot, and he has company in the person of Jon Cocks, whose website is from a prior race for Mayor of Fairview.

HD122 – The most Republican district in Bexar County, held by Greg Abbott frenemy Lyle Larson, Beto got 43.4% here, while Larson himself was getting almost 62 percent. Claire Barnett is a consultant for adult education programs and was the Democratic nominee here in 2018. She’s making another run in 2020.

HD84 – Last but not least, this is in some ways my favorite district on the list because it’s where you might least expect it – HD84 is in Lubbock County. Calling it a swing district is certainly a stretch – Beto got 43.1% in 2018, a big improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 34.8% in 2016, and incumbent John Frullo won by 20 points. But the direction is encouraging, and we’ve known since the 2011 redistricting cycle that one could build a Dem-leaning district in Lubbock if one were so inclined. If nothing else, keep that in mind as a thing to work for in the 2021 session. John Gibson, attorney and the Chair of the Lubbock County Democratic Party, announced his candidacy on Monday, deadline day, which made me happy because I’d been afraid we were skipping that race. I’m so glad we’re not.

I’ve still got judicial candidates and maybe a look at Fort Bend County candidates to look at. Stay tuned.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.

Raising money to register Republicans

Just keeping an eye on things.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A new super PAC focused on registering new Republican voters in Texas has raised nearly $10 million from some of the state’s biggest GOP donors, according to its first report to the Federal Election Commission.

Filed early Wednesday morning, the disclosure shows that the political action committee, Engage Texas, took in $9.6 million between when it registered with the FEC in mid-April and when the reporting period ended June 30. It spent $336,000 and has $9.3 million in the bank.

“This significant investment in resources will help us reach Texans in every corner of the state to educate them about Texas’ successful, conservative principles and engage them in the political process,” Engage Texas Chairman Mano de Ayala said in a statement.

Engage Texas launched in mid-June with the promise of signing up and turning out hundreds of thousands of new GOP voters to help keep the state red in 2020. The super PAC is led by Chris Young, a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee.

[…]

It appears Engage Texas has wasted little time getting to work, reporting 17 people on payroll through June in addition to Young. One of them is Kristy Wilkinson, who was deputy campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid last year and previously the Republican National Committee’s Texas state director.

The group says it has already opened offices in Austin, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It also has dispatched organizers to begin work in Bell, Blanco, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Fort Bend, Harris, Hays, Lampasas, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson counties.

See here for the background. This to me falls somewhere in between “legitimate threat to Democratic efforts in 2020” and “awesome get-rich-quick scheme for Republican consultants”, I just don’t know exactly where yet. I don’t think a lack of registered voters has been the issue for Republicans in the last couple of elections, but if this is more of a turnout effort then I think they could have a real effect. It would have been a much bigger disaster for them in 2018 if they hadn’t had near-Presidential levels of turnout on their side. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on but to be determined how big a deal this is.

Paxton wants to move his case back to Collin County

Of course they do.

Best mugshot ever

Paxton’s defense team has asked that the case be moved back to his hometown of Collin County, years after it was moved from there to Harris County. The case was moved hundreds of miles southeast after the prosecutors claimed that Paxton, a Republican who is well connected in that region and once represented it in the Texas Legislature, would not get a fair trial there.

But Paxton’s defense team argued this week that the judge who moved the case to Harris County two years ago didn’t have the authority to do so, as his term overseeing the case had elapsed.

[…]

That leaves [Judge Robert] Johnson, a Democratic judge overseeing the case, with several issues to mull before Paxton faces a jury. Johnson has not yet responded to either side’s motion.

On Monday, Paxton’s defense attorneys argued that if there is a hearing on the prosecutors’ fees, they should also be present — and asked that the judge rule on changing the venue before the pay issue.

The Team Paxton motions were in response to the prosecutors’ motion to confer with Judge Johnson – just them, Team Paxton is not invited – regarding their pay. I can understand that motion, but as the Observer notes, the argument to move the case back to Collin County is a rehash of the same arguments they made when the case was originally moved. That was seen at the time as a win for Paxton, since his team had moved to boot the original judge from the case. It seems unlikely to me that Judge Johnson will agree to just hand the case back to Collin County, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that Team Paxton will appeal that ruling and thus accomplish their main goal, which is delaying this trial from now until the heat death of the universe. Either way, they get something they want. The DMN has more.

We return once again to the Paxton prosecutor pay fight

This is an interesting argument.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors appointed years ago to take Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to trial will continue to fight over their pay rate, lengthening a dispute that has already delayed the case for well over a year.

[…]

Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer had signaled they might withdraw from the case if they could not be paid. Instead, they are now asking a Harris County judge for a private, “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team. In a filing this week, they asked Judge Robert Johnson to “issue a new order for payment of fees.”

“The Attorneys Pro Tem’s payment is now an administrative matter for the trial court to decide,” an attorney for Wice and Schaffer wrote. “The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision provides the court with the parameters necessary for the court to use its discretion in discharging its administrative duties.”

They added that “there is no authority suggesting that an adversarial hearing regarding the payment of fees … should be held” — arguing that Paxton’s defense lawyers should not be present for the hearing.

The judge has not yet responded to the request. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

See here for the last update. I’m glad they waited till after the legislative session to advance this argument, as I can easily imagine a hastily-written bill to cut this off at the knees getting rammed through. I’ve no idea if this brief, let alone the assertion that there doesn’t need to be a response from Team Paxton, has any merit or has ever been tried before. But it sure isn’t boring, and I can’t wait to see how Judge Johnson rules. The DMN has more.

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Another reason David Whitley has to go

County elections officials feel like they can’t trust him or his office right now. That’s a big deal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned on Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

I believe the term of art for this is that the SOS office is “in disarray”. Let us continue:

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials would have access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office would send soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn’t look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

And from there it got worse. The data was quickly shown to be disastrously inaccurate, with the SOS office at first quietly admitting as much to county officials. The lawsuits started coming, with county officials themselves being named in some of them for taking action upon receipt of the SOS advisory. And then the crown jewel, in which Keith Ingram threw county officials under the bus in a mealy-mouthed defense of his office’s incompetence. I’m sure this marriage of state and local elections officials can still be saved, but it’s time to get some counseling.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Betsy Schonhoff to tell her story in court, and for the reality to sink in on the Republican side that David Whitley’s days in office are numbered. And all of this began because of a zealous and fanatical pursuit of “illegal voters”, a problem that is very small and usually the result of misunderstanding than any bad intent, where all of the proposed “solutions” cause far more damage than they can ever hope to mitigate. All happening against the backdrop of the biggest election scandal I can recall, in which a Republican candidate for Congress and a shady campaign consultant used absentee ballots to actually steal an election, just last year, which now has to be done over. Just curious here, I don’t follow Ken Paxton on Twitter, but has he had anything to say about that? There are indeed lessons to be learned about election fraud. Our state leadership refuses to try.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Meet KP George

He’s the new Fort Bend County Judge.

KP George

In December, that strange suspended-in-motion month between his election and taking office, K.P. George was checking out the quaint old domed Fort Bend County Courthouse, soon to be his domain. In November, to the surprise of almost everyone outside his campaign, George had been elected Fort Bend’s county judge — which is to say, the top boss of one of the United States’ fastest-growing counties, with 765,000 residents, nearly 3,000 employees, and an annual budget over $370 million.

When George takes office on Jan. 1, he’ll become arguably the most powerful Indian-American in U.S. government — as well as a potent symbol of the new Fort Bend, and of Asian-Americans’ growing power in Texas and American politics.

[…]

And still, to most political insiders, George’s election came as a surprise. “He was not someone on our radar,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian-American Impact Fund. “It wasn’t a race we engaged in. In hindsight, that’s a lesson for us: In some of these places with fast-shifting demographics, like the Texas suburbs, there are huge opportunities for us.”

“For Republicans in Fort Bend County, Donald Trump is a real liability,” [Rice poli-sci professor Mark] Jones said. “Socially and fiscally conservative Asian-Americans used to vote for more Republicans. But Trump’s rhetoric and policies are seen as anti-immigrant — anti-Latino, but also anti-Asian.”

“Many Trump administration policies, such as targeting Muslims as terrorists, don’t play well with Asian-Americans…. Indian-Americans may not love Pakistanis, but the same racial discrimination that targets Pakistanis targets them.

“In Fort Bend, there was a double whammy for Republicans. A much larger proportion of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats, and Asian-Americans also turned out at a much higher rate than they had previously.”

Observers have long predicted that Texas’ changing demographics will eventually turn the most Republican of states into one that’s more bipartisan or even reliably Democratic. That’s already true of Texas’ cities. Now the battles have shifted to the suburbs.

Notably, George is a Democrat. “It’s a historic election for Texas,” said Jones — Fort Bend is the first exurb to elect a Democrat to the top of its county government. “It could portend the future for diverse counties such as Denton and Collin.”

I’m honestly surprised that this race wasn’t on the radar of any national organizations like the Indian-American Impact Fund. George was not a novice politician – he’d been twice elected to the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees. Fort Bend had been trending Dem for some time, and fit in every way the profile of the suburban, diverse, won-by-Hillary-in-2016 Congressional districts that were so hotly contested. Outgoing Judge Bob Hebert had served for a long time, but didn’t have the bipartisan cred that Ed Emmitt had, which might have helped him ride out the wave. This race should have been seen as a prime opportunity, and if it wasn’t that was a failure of imagination.

And yes, I believe this is a leading indicator for other suburban counties. Williamson County didn’t elect anyone countywide despite being carried by Beto O’Rourke, MJ Hegar, and Justin Nelson, but it did elect two Democratic State Reps and two JPs, while a Dem County Commissioner candidate fell just short. Dems didn’t carry any race in Denton or Collin, but elected a State Rep in Denton while just missing on two in Collin, and a JP in Denton County. It was a big step forward. There are no guarantees for 2020, of course, but the obstacle of credibility – the belief that it’s really possible a Dem could win – has been cleared. That can only help.

Paxton prosecutors take their shot at a do-over

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

In a fiery filing that amounts to a legal Hail Mary, the attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implored the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yielded “a patently absurd result.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November that a six-figure payment originally approved for the special prosecutors was outside legal limits — a move that boosted Paxton and threatened to derail the case against him, as the prosecutors had indicated they might withdraw if they could not be paid. A month later, the prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider their decision in a crucial case “where the ‘x’ axis of justice and the ‘y’ axis of politics intersect.”

Rehearing, they argued in a filing last week, is critical for ensuring that the high court’s proceedings “appear fair to all who observe them.” [Read the filing here]

[…]

In the Dec. 21 filing, prosecutor Brian Wice wrote that the prosecutors “would never have accepted the formidable task of prosecuting the Texas Attorney General over the last three-plus years had they been able to look into the future and discern that their pay would come within a coat of paint of minimum wage.”

From the opening sentence, the 18-page filing doesn’t mince words.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, you can lawfully create and endow a defense fund to pay for an armada of top-flight legal talent that most defendants can only dream of to defend yourself against three felony offenses,” Wice wrote.

In the motion for rehearing, which includes references to Atticus Finch, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan and the impending “Sword of Damocles,” the prosecutors implore the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yields “a patently absurd result” that would pay the special prosecutors “unconscionable” rates.

Letting the ruling stand, Wice argued, would allow any local government in Texas “to derail what it sees as an unjust prosecution by de-funding it.” And that type of funding dispute can be influenced by major political players, he suggested.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “While it was the Commissioners who prevailed in this Court, Paxton first recognized that the best, indeed, the only way to derail his prosecution was to de-fund it by challenging [prosecutors’] fees three years ago.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, the prosecutors are 100% right on the merits, and they lay it out with utter clarity. I maintain that the Legislature can and should fix this by making the state pick up the tab for prosecutions like this, but that won’t help here, even if we could be sure that a bill to address this would pass. We need the Court to do the right thing, which they failed to do the first time around. It’s either that or they show that they don’t care about the law when one of their own is on the sharp end of it.

Paxton prosecutors want another shot

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

The attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated in a court filing this week that they aren’t giving up a long-running fight to take the state’s top lawyer to court — at least not yet.

The filing follows a Nov. 21 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that six-figure payments to the special prosecutors were outside legal limits. The prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016, had in the past suggested that if they did not get paid, they might leave the case, which has dragged on for more than three years.

Brian Wice, one of those prosecutors, on Monday filed a document with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking more time to ask the court to rehear the case. If the court grants his request, prosecutors would have until Dec. 21 to try and convince the high court to reconsider their case. Wice declined to comment on Tuesday.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the fractured court handed down a total of six opinions, including three dissents. The all-Republican court will welcome one new member, Michelle Slaughter, in the new year.

See here for the background. I know asking for a re-hearing is a normal thing, though I have no idea how often it works. Maybe with a new judge coming on board there’s a chance of a different outcome, I don’t know. Maybe because the opinions were all over the place the justices themselves might be open to reconsidering. It can’t hurt. I just don’t expect much to change. The DMN has more.

CCA may have killed the Paxton prosecution

Ugh. Just, ugh.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday potentially imperiled the long-delayed criminal prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, ruling that payments to special prosecutors were outside legal limits.

If they cannot get paid, the prosecutors have suggested they could withdraw from the case against Paxton, a three-year-long legal saga that has dragged on in fits and starts amid side fights like the dispute over legal fees.

In its opinion Wednesday, the state’s highest criminal court said a lower trial court was wrong last year to approve a six-figure payment to the three special prosecutors handling the Paxton case. The prosecutors’ invoice was rejected by commissioners in Collin County — Paxton’s home county — touching off the legal fight that made its way to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

“Here, the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing an order for payment of frees that is not in accordance with an approved fee schedule containing reasonable fixed rates or minimum and maximum rates,” the opinion said.

The Court of Criminal Appeals invalidated the payment and ordered the lower court to re-issue it in accordance with the fee schedule.

“While we are disappointed with the majority’s ruling and are exploring all legal options available to us, it does not alter the fact that Ken Paxton remains charged with three serious felony offenses,” the prosecutors said in a statement responding to the ruling.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea what happens next. A copy of the opinion is here, and the Observer has some thoughts. Maybe the prosecutors stick it out – maybe now Collin County will agree to pay them something reasonable, now that they can dictate the terms more. Maybe they step down and some other prosecutors step in. Maybe it all goes up in flames. The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a scandal that needs to be addressed by the Lege. The possibility that Paxton may end up skating because the system as designed was not capable of finding a prosecutor for the charges against him is too gruesome to contemplate, so I’m not going to think about it any more today. Have some turkey or turkey-alternative, watch some football, and quit griping about how it’s Christmas season already. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

An update on the close races

Good news from Harris County.

Gina Calanni

Fresh tallies of absentee and provisional ballots narrowed state Rep. Dwayne Bohac’s margin over Democrat Adam Milasincic to 47 votes, while incumbent Republican Mike Schofield of Katy trailed Democratic challenger Gina Calanni by 113 votes.

Harris County Commissioners Court will make the results official Friday, according to the county clerk’s office. Candidates may request a recount if they trail by less than 10 percent of the total number of votes received by the leading candidate, meaning both races are well within the requisite margin.

As it stood Thursday, Bohac’s lead amounted to less than one tenth of a percent, out of 48,417 votes. Calanni led by a more comfortable .17 percent, among 66,675 votes. Election night returns had showed Bohac leading by 72 votes and Calanni up by 97 votes.

Either way, the results mark a dramatic shift from 2014, when Schofield and Bohac, R-Houston, last faced Democratic foes. That year, the two Republicans won by more than 30 percentage points, each roughly doubling their opponents’ vote totals.

[…]

In the 108th House District, Democrat Joanna Cattanach requested a recount Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News reported. She trailed incumbent state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, by 221 votes, according to Dallas County elections results updated Wednesday.

In Collin County, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, led Democrat Sharon Hirsch by 391 votes in the 66th House District, according to the county’s elections site. Hirsch had not conceded as of Thursday morning.

Cattanach is the first candidate to request a recount, but she won’t be the last. Expect her to have some company after the results around the state are certified Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in CD23:

The political roller coaster in Congressional District 23 continued Thursday when Gina Ortiz Jones’ campaign turned its attention to election officials in Medina County.

Commissioners in Medina declined to certify the county’s results, temporarily raising the possibility of a recount in the Republican stronghold. The commissioners were given two different figures for the number of absentee voters — 1,034 and 1,010.

Jones trails incumbent Republican Will Hurd by around 1,000 votes in the race, which remains too close to call.

There’s no other choice but for this department to have a recount,” Republican Commissioner Tim Neuman said after finding the variation.

But a couple hours later, Medina Elections Administrator Lupe Torres said they were able to identify the discrepancy and would reschedule the canvassing for Monday, a plan Neuman said he agreed with.

[…]

On Thursday, the [Jones] campaign accused Medina County of breaching protocol after counting 981 mail ballots on election night. Early voting ballot boards are the small, bipartisan groups charged with reviewing and qualifying those ballots, along with provisional votes.

At the end of the night, the ballot board usually turns off the machine it used to count the ballots, as is protocol, according to affidavits from the two Democratic-appointed board members, which the campaign provided.

Instead, Torres told them to leave the machine running. Torres told them he needed to run 29 “limited” ballots through the machine, bringing the number to 1,010.

Limited ballots are cast by people who have recently moved from another county but have not switched their registration.

Torres initially denied those claims, but he later said he would “correct himself” and admitted it happened. When asked why about the denials, he said: “That’s what I thought had happened.

I don’t even know what to make of that. Just add it to the weirdness pile for this election. We’ll know more soon.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

By the time the polls closed Thursday, 33.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, well past the 17.3 percent turnout at the same point in 2014, the last midterm, and close to the presidential-year turnout recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

And Bexar County’s election officials are not alone in having a lot to high-five each other about. Turnout during early voting in the state’s 30 largest counties easily surpassed the entire turnout – during the early voting period and on Election Day – of the 2014 midterm and continues to race toward the turnout seen in presidential election years.

In Harris County, the state’s largest county, 32.3 percent of registered voters had voted by the end of Thursday, compared to 15.5 percent at the same point in 2014. In Dallas County, the number was 35.1 percent, compared to 15.2 percent at the same point in 2014. Early voting turnout in Travis County had already surpassed total early voter turnout in both the 2014 midterm and the 2012 presidential election by the end of Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy and activist voters out there who have been wanting to vote for a long time,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk. She attributed the bump in the number of voters to President Donald Trump.

She said voter turnout dipped slightly earlier in the week, as is often the case, but that the numbers quickly rebounded toward the end of the week, which she said will help alleviate some traffic on Election Day.

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that the “blockbuster” turnout seen during early voting this year sets a new bar for future elections.

“It’s clear that much of the future of Texas will be fought in suburban Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

He said counties like Collin, Denton, Montgomery and Williamson saw a greater number of Democrats turning up to vote than in previous elections. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to win those counties, he said, but it does mean that they have become much more competitive.

“On one hand, suburban Texas is now younger and more ethnically diverse, replacing the first generation which is middle age and white” Rottinghaus said. “And Donald Trump and some of the inflammatory rhetoric have really caused a lack of interest among Republican women and college-educated voters in the suburbs.”

Rottinghaus said statewide Hispanic turnout is up slightly from 2014, which he said is “good but not great for Democrats.” While it looked like Democrats were doing better than Republicans in border counties early on in early voting, he said that it now looks like Republican voters are turning up in larger numbers.

“It’s not the groundswell that Democrats had hoped for,” Rottinghaus said.

The same story applies to young voters, Rottinghaus said. Although more young voters turned out in 2018 than in 2014, he said the 2016 presidential year still has both of the midterm years beat.

“This seems to show that younger voters, although inspired by an electric O’Rourke campaign, still need that push of a president at the top of the ticket to turn out,” Rottinghaus said.

I think what we’re going to get is going to be somewhere between 2008/2012 turnout, and 2016 turnout, which is the current high-water mark. The main question here is how many people who are going to vote have already voted. In previous off-year elections, a bit more than half of the vote – around 55% – is cast early. In Presidential years, the share of the early vote is higher, with that number spiking up in 2016. I’ll show the details later, but for now I’ll say this feels more like a Presidential year, but not exactly like one. As such, I think we’ll still see a decent number of voters on Tuesday, but for sure the bulk of the vote has already been cast.

Here are the Friday/final totals, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  89,098  766,613  855,711

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

About where I thought we’d end up, though the potential was there for a bit more. I think the bad weather on Wednesday prevented some people from voting, with some of them shifting to Thursday or Friday and some of them still needing to vote. Here are a range of outcomes for final turnout based on what we’ve seen so far:

855,711 at 65% = 1,316,478
855,711 at 67% = 1,277,180
855,711 at 70% = 1,222,444
855,711 at 73% = 1,172,206
855,711 at 75% = 1,140,980

2008 EV = 63.5%
2012 EV = 63.7%
2016 EV = 73.0%

In other words, in 2008 and 2012 a bit more than 63% of the vote was cast early, while in 2016 that amount was 73 percent. My best guess, based entirely on gut feel, is that we’ll fall in the middle of that this year, which will put us in the 1.2 million range, or about the total for 2008 and 2012. It could still go higher or lower from there, and in the end the range of possibility is about 200K votes. The weather should be good on Tuesday, so at least there won’t be any nature-induced barriers.

One last thing to think about. In 2016, the top Republican votegetter was Tracy Christopher, who was running for the 14th Court of Appeals, with 621,960 votes, followed by Debra Ibarra Mayfield, running for the 165th District Court, with 621,060. The smallest number of votes any Democrat received who was on the ballot for everyone in the county was 610,648 by Grady Yarbrough, running for Railroad Commissioner. Most Republican judicial candidates, including all of the statewide judicials other than Eva Guzman and all of the courts of appeals candidates other than Christopher and Sherry Radack, failed to top Yarbrough’s total. If turnout really is 1.2 million or above, you tell me where the Republicans are going to get the votes to win Harris County.

The meta-campaign for Senate

Let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about the Senate campaign.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

It’s the most backhanded of compliments.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for U.S. Senate has caught so much fire throughout the state that the new favorite betting game in Texas politics is “How close can he get to Ted Cruz in November?”

The implication in the question’s phrasing is that O’Rourke’s loss remains a given.

Despite the high enthusiasm the El Paso congressman’s campaign has drawn among Democrats, Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide in over 20 years. An informal round of interviews with well over a dozen political players involved in Texas and national politics suggests that Cruz is expected to extend that streak with a re-election victory in the high single digits.

While such a margin would amount to significant progress for Democrats from past statewide performances, a loss is a loss, and Cruz’s win would likely ensure GOP control of the U.S. Senate for another two years.

Even so, O’Rourke’s 18-month statewide tour could still help significantly rebuild a flagging state party apparatus. The term being thrown around quietly among Democrats is “losing forward.”

In that sense, the stakes are much higher for both parties than a single race.

How this very strange match up of Cruz, a former GOP presidential runner-up, against O’Rourke, a rank-and-file congressman turned political sensation, shakes out could set the trajectory of the next decade in Texas politics.

[…]

More than one operative from both parties brushed off the O’Rourke excitement with a pervasive phrase — “This is still Texas” — a nod to the state’s recent history as the most populous conservative powerhouse in the union.

The enthusiasm for O’Rourke — his bonanza event attendance and record-breaking fundraising, in particular — is something the state has not seen in modern memory. But there remain open questions over whether the three-term congressman can take a punch when the widely expected fall advertising blitz against him begins, whether he can activate the Hispanic vote and whether he can effectively build his name identification in a such a sprawling and populated state.

“We’ve never been in a situation where November matters at a statewide level,” said Jason Stanford, a former Democratic consultant, about the uncertainty of the fall.

So what would a moral victory be, if O’Rourke is unable to close the deal outright? Operatives from both parties suggest a 5- to 6-point spread — or smaller — could send a shockwave through Texas politics.

Such a margin could compel national Democrats to start making serious investments in the state and force local Republicans to re-examine how their own party practices politics going forward.

But that kind of O’Rourke performance could also bear more immediate consequences, potentially scrambling the outcomes of races for other offices this fall.

Only a handful of statewide surveys on the race are floating around the Texas political ether. But one increasing point of alarm for Republicans is what campaign strategists are seeing when they test down-ballot races.

Often campaigns for the U.S. House or the Texas Legislature will include statewide matchups in polling they conduct within a district. Sources from both parties say some of those polls show Cruz underperforming in some state legislative and congressional races — particularly in urban areas.

In effect, O’Rourke could come up short but turn out enough voters in the right communities to push Democrats over the line in races for the Legislature and U.S. House.

I know I discussed this before back in 2014 when we were all high on Battleground Texas, but let’s do this again. What are the consolation prize goals for Texas Democrats in 2018?

– To discuss the consolation prizes, we have to first agree on what the main goals are. Clearly, electing Beto O’Rourke is one of the brass rings, but what about the other statewide campaigns? My guess is that based primarily on visibility and the implications for control of the Senate, the O’Rourke-Cruz race is in a class by itself, so everything after that falls in the “consolation prize” bucket. Thus, I’d posit that winning one or more downballot statewide race would be in the first level of lower-tier goals, with Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, and any Supreme Court/CCA bench being the ones that are most in focus.

– Very close behind would be the Congressional races, for which three (CDs 07, 23, and 32) are rated as tossups, a couple more (CDs 21 and 31) are on the radar, and more than we can count are on the fringes. You have to feel like CD23 is winnable in any decent year, so for this to count as a prize we’d need at least one more seat in addition to flip. Very good would be all three tossups, and great would be another seat in addition.

– In the Lege, picking up even one Senate seat would be nice, but picking up two or three means Dems have enough members to block things via the three-fifths (formerly two-thirds) rule. I don’t know how many House seats I’d consider prize-level-worthy, but knocking off a couple of the worst offenders that are in winnable seats, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115, Gary Elkins in HD135, and Tony Dale in HD136, would be sweet.

– Sweeping Harris County, breaking through in Fort Bend County, picking up any kind of victory in places like Collin, Denton, Williamson, Brazoria, you get the idea. And don’t forget the appellate courts, which will require doing well in non-urban counties.

It’s easy enough to say what counts as lower-level goals, it’s harder to put numbers on it. It’s not my place to say what we “should” win in order to feel good about it. Frankly, given recent off-year elections, it’s a bit presumptuous to say that any number of victories in places we haven’t won this decade might be somehow inadequate. I think everyone will have their own perception of how it went once the election is over, and unless there’s a clear rout one way or the other there will be some level of disagreement over how successful Democrats were.

Don’t expect a Ken Paxton trial to happen this year

Delays, delays, nothing but delays.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

“I just don’t see there’s any way it gets tried before the election,” said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who has represented everyone from Enron employees to athletes and TV stars. “I would have doubted that the trial would have happened before the election even if the Court of Criminal Appeals would have decided today.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Just for a sense of the timeline here, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas halted the special prosecutors’ pay last February, then ruled they had to give a bunch of it back to Collin County in August. The CCA then stayed that ruling pending any action it would take in September, and after giving everyone 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Court’s ruling, they agreed in December to formally review that ruling. At that time, it delayed the actual Paxton trial, which was originally set to start on December 11, to this year. More than six months later, the CCA has not scheduled oral arguments for that appeal, and so here we are. There are other factors at play here – the damage done to the Harris County courthouse by Harvey greatly complicates things, for example – but either until this lawsuit gets resolved, nothing else will happen. And just any ruling won’t get us back on track, because if the CCA lets the 5th Court’s ruling stand, the special prosecutors will resign, and we’ll have to start more or less from scratch. Ken Paxton could well be collecting his state pension by the time this sucker gets to a courthouse.

You’ve heard the expression that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Usually, that applies to the defendant, who is entitled by the Constitution to a fair and prompt trial. In this case, as Democratic nominee for AG Justin Nelson says in a statement, Ken Paxton is benefiting from the unending delays, with the assistance of his legislative cronies. You’d think a guy who loudly proclaims his innocence would want to get this over with, but not Ken Paxton. It would seem he’s just fine with putting this off, at least until after the election. Feel free to speculate as to why that might be.

Self-driving car service coming to North Texas

Coming to the city of Frisco in July, a public-private venture pairing up with a California-based outfit called Drive.ai, for something that’s a little like shuttle service and a little like mass transit on a small scale.

The initial service will be available to transport the 10,000 employees working at offices at Hall Park to retail and dining options nearby at The Star in Frisco, where the Dallas Cowboys are headquartered. For many, the distance (just shy of a mile) is too far to walk but too short to warrant a trip by car.

People will be able to request a ride through a smartphone app. The service will be free during a six-month test run. Negotiations are already under way to bring a more permanent service to Frisco after that.

[…]

Safety is a priority, Andrew Ng of Drive.ai said at the Frisco event. And that’s why working with local authorities is so important. The company will be able to coordinate with first responders, help with public awareness campaigns and offer routes that add value. Local officials will also coordinate with the company when there are special events or road closures that affect traffic flow.

“Together we can make this thing as safe as possible,” Ng said.

Artificial intelligence is great at maneuvering fixed routes but has difficulty recognizing hand signals from a construction worker directing traffic, Ng explained. That’s where local leaders can step in and help.

He asks people to be aware of the bright orange self-driving vehicles, be lawful and be considerate around them — just like drivers are when they see school buses on the road. The vehicles also have four external screens to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers on the road.

Initial trips will have a human available in the driver’s seat of the orange vehicles to take over at a moment’s notice. The next stage puts the person in the passenger seat as a chaperone to answer passenger questions. The final stage lets the self-driving cars go solo with a remote operator available if needed.

Drive.ai is shouldering all of the costs involved in the pilot project. A dollar amount is not being disclosed.

“We’re invested in the region,” said Conway Chen, vice president of business strategy for Drive.ai. “We see this as a great test ground for other cities.”

James Cline, president of the Denton County Transportation Authority, said he believes self-driving vehicles have a place in public transportation and mobility. Whether that role is transporting people on that last mile from a bus stop to their house or replacing buses entirely remains to be seen.

“The challenge is going to be getting people to accept it,” he said.

This Fortune story has a bit more about Drive.ai, which I’d never heard of before now, as well as a map of the rute this car will follow. It’s not to scale, but given the description in the story my guess is that if it were more pedestrian-friendly, maybe more people would walk instead of needing a ride. Or maybe I’m just projecting. If the idea here is to make transit more feasible in these non-pedestrian-friendly places by solving the last-mile problem, that seems like a good thing. If not, we’ll just have to see. For this arrangement, Drive.ai – more likely, the venture capitalists funding Drive.ai – are paying for everything. How this might work in the real world is another question I’d like to examine. We’ll check back later in the year. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

No Paxton trial till prosecutor pay case resolved

It’s not on the court calendar at this time.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fraud trials have been put on hold as the lawyers pursuing the criminal charges against him fight for years of back pay.

Judge Robert Johnson has taken Paxton’s three criminal cases off his docket for now, the court confirmed to The Dallas Morning News on Friday. While court staff did not have a reason for the removal, the three attorneys prosecuting Paxton have repeatedly asked for the cases to be halted while they fight to have their pay resumed.

The delay will almost certainly push Paxton’s trials into general election season, when he will be seeking another term as the state’s top lawyer. In July, Paxton’s indictments will turn three years old.

[…]

“The (Paxton) case is kind of waiting to go to trial based on [the CCA’s] decision,” said Larry Meyers, a Democrat who lost his seat on the criminal court last year. “About six weeks would probably be a fairly responsible time for them to get an opinion out.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals won’t take up the prosecutors’ case until January 10, so a decision could be issued just before voters go to the polls in the March 6 primary elections. If the court sides with the prosecutors, jury selection in Houston will likely proceed without much further delay. If it doesn’t, the prosecutors have threatened to step down, a move which will temporarily derail the case against Paxton as the county looks for replacement lawyers.

See here for the background. If the CCA rules for the prosecutors, figure on the trial beginning in late spring or early summer. If not, figure on something like the third of never. Let’s hope for the best.