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Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 3

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2

We wrap up our look at Fort Bend County with a look at the three executive offices that were on the ballot – County Attorney, Sheriff, and Tax Assessor.


Dist   Rogers   Lawson Rogers% Lawson%
======================================
CD09   15,023   50,782  22.83%  77.17%
CD22  145,087  127,054  53.31%  46.69%
				
HD26   43,626   39,504  52.48%  47.52%
HD27   24,389   56,616  30.11%  69.89%
HD28   66,099   54,828  54.66%  45.34%
HD85   26,625   26,552  50.07%  49.93%
				
CC1    37,971   37,058  50.61%  49.39%
CC2    17,680   50,002  26.12%  73.88%
CC3    62,634   44,214  58.62%  41.38%
CC4    41,822   46,562  47.32%  52.68%


Dist    Nehls    Fagan  Nehls%  Fagan%
======================================
CD09   14,833   51,165  22.47%  77.53%
CD22  146,932  128,505  53.35%  46.65%
				
HD26   44,560   39,723  52.87%  47.13%
HD27   24,035   57,421  29.51%  70.49%
HD28   66,891   55,267  54.76%  45.24%
HD85   26,899   26,911  49.99%  50.01%
				
CC1    38,247   37,720  50.35%  49.65%
CC2    17,442   50,439  25.69%  74.31%
CC3    63,111   44,910  58.42%  41.58%
CC4    42,964   46,599  47.97%  52.03%


Dist Pressler   Turner  Press% Turner%
======================================
CD09   15,165   50,611  23.06%  76.94%
CD22  147,338  124,999  54.10%  45.90%
				
HD26   44,460   38,767  53.42%  46.58%
HD27   24,799   56,167  30.63%  69.37%
HD28   66,903   54,081  55.30%  44.70%
HD85   26,904   26,301  50.57%  49.43%
				
CC1    38,516   36,606  51.27%  48.73%
CC2    17,829   49,779  26.37%  73.63%
CC3    63,433   43,533  59.30%  40.70%
CC4    42,722   45,692  48.32%  51.68%

The most remarkable thing about these three races is the consistency. There’s less than a point of variance in the three races, in whichever district you look. That was not the case in Harris County, where Sheriff Ed Gonzalez ran well ahead of the pack, and where we often see a fairly wide range of results at the countywide level. Bridgette Smith-Lawson and Eric Fagan had identical percentages overall – there were about 3500 more votes cast in the Sheriff’s race, but the marginal voters broke for each candidate exactly as the overlapping voters had – and they both finished about 0.7 points ahead of Carmen Turner. I’ve often said that blowout races are boring to analyze because they don’t offer much insight into anything, but sometimes the same is true for close races. A few more people voted for James Pressler than for Steve Rogers, but not in a way that demonstrated any strengths or weaknesses on the part of anyone involved. Just one of those things, and it ultimately meant nothing as far as the outcome was concerned.

I’ve mentioned Commissioners Court Precinct 1 a few times, and here I should note that incumbent Commissioner Vincent Morales won with 52.30% of the vote, ahead of the other Republicans here indeed every other Republican in Fort Bend. Judicial candidate Maggie Jaramillo was next best in that district, with 52.17% of the vote. Another piece of evidence for the relative advantage that Latino Republicans had, in this election at least, and perhaps a cautionary tale for the 2024 campaign by Democrats to unseat Morales and cement a 4-1 membership on the Court. Morales’ incumbency and his appeal to independent/soft Dem Latino voters will make it that much harder to oust him. If the plan is to endanger him via the redistricting process, my advice is to add in a bit of buffer, because he will likely overperform the baseline.

That’s it for Fort Bend. I’ll try to work on Brazoria County next. Let me know what you think.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1

This post is going to focus on the judicial races in Fort Bend County. There are a lot of them – seven statewide, four appellate, five district and county – and I don’t want to split them into multiple posts because there’s not enough to say about them, nor do I want to present you with a wall of numbers that will make your eyes glaze over. So, I’m going to do a bit of analysis up top, then put all the number beneath the fold for those who want a closer look or to fact-check me. I’ll have one more post about the Fort Bend county races, and then maybe I’ll take a crack at Brazoria County, which will be even more manual labor than these posts were.

The point of interest at the statewide level is in the vote differentials between the three races that included a Libertarian candidate and the four races that did not. Just eyeballing the totals and bearing in mind that there’s some variance in each group, the Republican candidate got an increase of a bit more than half of the Libertarian vote total in each district, while the Democrats were more or less around the same level. That comports with the general thesis that Libertarians tend to take votes away from Republicans more than Democrats, though the effect here was pretty small. It’s also a small sample, and every county has its own characteristics, so don’t go drawing broad conclusions. For what it’s worth, there wasn’t anything here to contradict that piece of conventional wisdom.

For the appellate court races, the thing I have obsessed over is the incredibly small margin in the election for Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, which Jane Robinson lost by 1500 votes, or 0.06 percentage points. We saw in Harris County that she trailed the two victorious Democrats, Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Amparo Guerra, who were part of a trend in Harris County where Latino candidates generally out-performed the rest of the ticket. That wasn’t quite the case in Fort Bend. Robinson again trailed Rivas-Molloy by a little – in overall vote total, Robinson trailed Rivas-Molloy by about two thousand votes, while Republican Tracy Christopher did an equivalent amount better than Russell Lloyd. But unlike in Harris, Robinson outperformed Guerra, by about a thousand votes, and Guerra barely beat out Tamika Craft, who was farther behind the pack in Harris County. I don’t have a good explanation for that, it looks to me just like a weird result that has no obvious cause or correlation to what we saw elsewhere. It’s also the case, as we discussed in part one of the Fort Bend results, that if Dems had done a better job retaining voters downballot, none of this would matter all that much.

Finally, in the district court races (there were four of them, plus one county court), the results that grabbed my attention were in a couple of contests that appeared one after the other. Republican Maggie Jaramillo, running for the 400th District Court, was the closest member of Team GOP to win, as she lost to Tameika Carter by ten thousand votes. In the next race, for the 434th District Court, Republican Jim Shoemake lost to Christian Becerra by twenty-two thousand votes. This was the difference between a three-point loss for Jaramillo, and a six-and-a-half point loss for Shoemake. Jaramillo was the top performing Republican candidate in any race in Fort Bend, while Becerra was sixth best among Dems, trailing Joe Biden, three statewide judicial candidates, and Sheriff Eric Fagan. You may have noticed that they’re both Latinos, though the effect appears to have been a bit greater for the Republican Jaramillo. Becerra was the only Dem besides Biden to carry Commissioners Court Precinct 1, though that may not have been strictly a Latino candidate phenomenon – Elizabeth Frizell had the next highest percentage, with Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Tina Clinton close behind. (Amy Clark Meachum and Staci Williams, both in three-candidate races, came closer to carrying CC1 than any other candidates, but their percentage of the vote was lower.) Again, no broad conclusions here, just an observation.

Click on for the race data, and remember I had to piece this together by hand, so my numbers may be a little off from the official state totals when those come out. County races are next. Let me know what you think.

(more…)

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

There’s a real lack of consensus about the I-45 project

It seems unlikely that TxDOT could just throw up its hands and walk away from this, but it’s at least a possible scenario.

A proposed agreement devised to bring planners and critics of a massive redesign of Interstate 45 together has left officials in many ways further apart and opponents with a chance to convince more people the $8 billion project is stuck in the past.

No one is pulling the plug on the freeway rebuild or its design, but transportation officials said the lack of consensus between the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council has the region’s largest-ever freeway rebuild at a crossroads. It is a hurdle a proposed memorandum of understanding was intended to clear, but the various agencies could not even agree on the agreement.

Transportation Policy Council members tabled a resolution last Friday after TxDOT said that even voting on an agreement that had no legally binding effect could complicate the project. That left some officials struggling to understand how various concerns about the project can even be addressed.

“I think it is a huge black mark on TPC and H-GAC that after all of this work and all of this community involvement nothing happens,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a member of the committee that worked on the now-scuttled agreement. “I just can’t imagine this thing foundering at this point and how it will affect the public’s perception.”

[…]

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out federal money for highways and must include the project in its spending plans for the next decade, brought TxDOT and others together in June 2020 to create an agreement outlining what each hoped to gain from the project and some outline of the design’s goals. A committee was formed to develop a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the entities outlining what they jointly commit to and who is responsible for certain particulars. The committee was headed by Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Transportation Training and Research.

Lewis said the various groups achieved a lot, developing what she called a framework from which to build consensus even with “extremes of positions” among TxDOT and the project’s critics.

“The opinions were not necessarily all aligned but we got to a good place,” Lewis said.

TxDOT’s legal review, however, called for sweeping changes, eliminating any part of the proposed agreement that conflicted with the current environmental plan. Otherwise, lawyers concluded, TxDOT would not able to sign a deal that differs with what it proposed to federal officials.

Unable to get a firm, binding agreement, Lewis said the committee sought a resolution that would go to H-GAC’s transportation council. The reasoning was that a resolution could at least serve as a guidepost of what everyone wanted to achieve.

Even that ran into opposition from TxDOT. The concern, state officials said, is a resolution would send mixed signals that the project did not have regional support, although the transportation council’s 10-year plan has set aside money for it.

In a statement some said boded ominously, [TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza] Paul noted if the Houston area slowed or stopped its support of the project, it could lose its place in line for state funding.

“I know TxDOT is not going to let the $8 billion sit around until we know what we are going to do,” Paul said.

I don’t know what to make of that, so go read the rest. As noted in the last update, Harris County and the city of Houston oppose the design as it is now but still want to see the project work. Other groups like LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Stop I-45 are firmly in opposition, and there’s some hope among them that this could be a way to kill the project. I have a hard time believing that, but given how long this idea has been in the works, I could imagine it being delayed for another few years, with the current pot of money being re-apportioned. The TPC has another meeting in late February to try again with this resolution, so we’ll see if they’ve made any progress on it by then.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE

I’ve finally run out of Harris County races from 2020 to analyze, so let’s move over to Fort Bend County. I’ve said before that while Fort Bend provides downloadable Excel files on their county elections page, they format these results in a way that makes it harder for me to do the same analysis I do with Harris County. Basically, Harris County puts all the results on one worksheet, with the totals for every candidate given in each precinct. For district races, that means a blank in the results when the precinct in question is not in that district, but the cell for that district is there. That makes it super easy for me to use Excel functions to add up the vote totals for, say, the Presidential candidates in the precincts where, say, the HD134 voters are. I can do practically every race in a matter of an hour or two, and indeed I spend more time formatting the blog posts than I do the calculations.

Fort Bend, on the other hand, separates each race into its own worksheet, which is fine in and of itself, except that for district races they only include the precincts for that race on the worksheet in question. That completely nullifies the formulas I use for Harris County, and when I went and looked to see how I did it in 2016, I saw that I manually added the relevant cells for each of the countywide races, an approach that is inelegant, labor intensive, and prone to error. But it was the best I could do, so I did it again that way here. I can tell you that my results are not fully accurate, and I know this because the subtotals don’t add up correctly, but they’re close enough to suffice. The one exception is for the County Commissioner precincts, which are fully grouped together in Fort Bend – each precinct number is four digits, with the first digit being a one, two, three, or four, and that first digit is the Commissioner precinct. So those at least are easy to add up correctly. The rest is messy, but I did the best I could. When the official state reports come out in March and they’re off from mine, you’ll know why.

Anyway. That’s a lot of minutia, so let’s get to the numbers.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,527   52,998    414    292
CD22  142,191  142,554  2,614    799
				
HD26   42,389   45,097    743    283
HD27   24,191   59,921    576    296
HD28   65,043   61,103  1,212    313
HD85   26,661   29,016    503    197
				
CC1    37,765   40,253    699    261
CC2    18,054   52,525    441    307
CC3    61,437   49,976  1,120    247
CC4    40,460   52,798    768    276

Dist   Trump%   Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.43%   76.55%  0.60%  0.42%
CD22   49.34%   49.47%  0.91%  0.28%
				
HD26   47.89%   50.95%  0.84%  0.32%
HD27   28.47%   70.51%  0.68%  0.35%
HD28   50.95%   47.86%  0.95%  0.25%
HD85   47.29%   51.47%  0.89%  0.35%
				
CC1    47.82%   50.97%  0.89%  0.33%
CC2    25.31%   73.64%  0.62%  0.43%
CC3    54.48%   44.31%  0.99%  0.22%
CC4    42.90%   55.99%  0.81%  0.29%


Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,345   49,730  1,082    639
CD22  145,632  129,254  4,277  1,473
				
HD26   43,650   40,478  1,264    506
HD27   24,695   55,984  1,308    672
HD28   66,532   55,483  1,859    580
HD85   26,653   26,678    949    355
				
CC1    38,088   37,124  1,318    447
CC2    17,948   49,130  1,123    626
CC3    63,061   45,045  1,614    489
CC4    41,877   47,685  1,304    550

Dist  Cornyn%   Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.97%   74.45%  1.62%  0.96%
CD22   51.89%   46.06%  1.52%  0.52%
				
HD26   50.82%   47.12%  1.47%  0.59%
HD27   29.88%   67.73%  1.58%  0.81%
HD28   53.46%   44.58%  1.49%  0.47%
HD85   48.78%   48.83%  1.74%  0.65%
				
CC1    49.48%   48.23%  1.71%  0.58%
CC2    26.08%   71.38%  1.63%  0.91%
CC3    57.22%   40.87%  1.46%  0.44%
CC4    45.81%   52.16%  1.43%  0.60%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   14,727   50,118    923    769
CD22  142,842  125,932  4,794  2,479
				
HD26   42,848   39,268  1,367    860
HD27   23,874   55,827  1,267    850
HD28   65,253   54,232  2,115  1,011
HD85   26,165   26,418    968    521
				
CC1    37,302   36,877  1,341    640
CC2    17,328   49,299    984    776
CC3    61,909   43,760  1,924    863
CC4    41,027   46,114  1,468    969

Dist  Wright%   Casta%   Lib%	Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.13%   75.32%  1.39%  1.16%
CD22   51.75%   45.62%  1.74%  0.90%
				
HD26   50.80%   46.56%  1.62%  1.02%
HD27   29.18%   68.23%  1.55%  1.04%
HD28   53.22%   44.23%  1.72%  0.82%
HD85   48.39%   48.86%  1.79%  0.96%
				
CC1    48.98%   48.42%  1.76%  0.84%
CC2    25.34%   72.09%  1.44%  1.13%
CC3    57.08%   40.35%  1.77%  0.80%
CC4    45.80%   51.48%  1.64%  1.08%

The first number to consider is not about any of the districts. It’s simply this: John Cornyn received 3K more votes in Fort Bend County than Donald Trump did, but MJ Hegar got over 16K fewer votes than Joe Biden. Jim Wright got about as many votes as Trump did, but Chrysta Castaneda got 19K fewer votes than Biden. That trend continued in the district races as well. Troy Nehls got 2K more votes than Trump did in CD22, while Sri Kulkarni got 19K fewer votes. Jacey Jetton got a thousand more votes than Trump did in HD26, while Sarah DeMerchant got 4,500 fewer votes than Biden did. Biden clearly got a few Republican crossover votes, but by far the difference between his performance and everyone else’s on the ballot was that there was a significant number of people who voted for Joe Biden and then didn’t vote in other races. That was just not so on the Republican side.

I don’t have a single explanation for this. It’s a near reverse of what happened in Harris County in 2004, when George Bush clearly got some Democratic crossovers, but by and large there were a lot of Bush-only voters, while the folks who showed up for John Kerry generally stuck around and voted for the other Dems. I don’t think what happened here in Fort Bend is a function of straight ticket voting, or its removal in this case, because there’s a world of difference between someone who picks and chooses what races to vote in and someone who votes for President and then goes home – I just don’t believe that latter person would have selected the “straight Democratic” choice if it had been there. In 2004, my theory was that Bush was a brand name candidate who drew out more casual voters who didn’t really care about the other races, while Kerry voters were more hardcore. I don’t buy that here because if anything I would have expected the Trump voters to be more likely to be one and done. It’s a mystery to me, but it’s one that state and Fort Bend Democrats need to try to figure out. At the very least, we could have won HD26, and we could have elected Jane Robinson to the 14th Court of Appeals if we’d done a better job downballot here.

One other possibility I will mention: Sri Kulkarni wrote an article in the Texas Signal that analyzed his loss and cited a large disinformation campaign against him that contributed to his defeat. That may be a reason why the Libertarian candidate did as well as he did in that race. I don’t doubt Kulkarni’s account of his own race, but I hesitate to fully accept this explanation. Dems had a larger dropoff of the vote in CD09 as well – about 3K fewer votes for Hegar and Castaneda, less than 1K fewer for Cornyn and Wright – and the dropoff in CD22 was pretty consistent for other Dems as well, though Kulkarni did generally worse. It may have moved the needle somewhat against him, but it doesn’t explain what happened with other Dems. Again, someone with more time and resources available to them – the TDP, in particular – should do a deeper dive on this. I do believe that disinformation was an issue for Dems last year, and will be an increasing problem going forward, and we need to get our arms around that. I just believe there were other causes as well, and we need to understand those, too.

One more thing: Kulkarni ran a lot closer to the Biden standard in Harris County than he did in Fort Bend. Biden and Trump were virtually tied in CD22 in Harris County, with the vote going 21,912 for Trump to 21,720 for Biden; Nehls defeated Kulkarni 20,953 to 19,743 in Harris. That’s the kind of result that one can easily attribute to Biden crossovers, and doesn’t raise any flags about the level of undervoting. I haven’t looked at Brazoria County yet, but my point here is just that Fort Bend County was very different in its behavior than Harris County was. And again, for the Nth time, we need to understand why. That is the point I’m trying to sledgehammer home.

Moving on, HD28 was a steeper hill to climb than perhaps we thought it would be. Eliz Markowitz got about 1,500 fewer votes than MJ Hegar did, and about 300 fewer than Castanada, while Gary Gates outperformed both Jim Wright and John Cornyn. It should be noted that while Dems in general lost HD28 by 20 points or so in 2016, Markowitz and other Dems were losing it by ten or eleven points in 2020. In total vote terms, a gap of 16-18K votes in 2016 was reduced to 12-13K votes in 2020. The shift is real, and even if it didn’t net us any extra seats, it’s still there.

The other way that shift manifested was in the County Commissioner precincts. In 2016, Republicans won three of the four precincts, with two-term Democrat Richard Morrison in Precinct 1 finally getting unseated after he had won against badly tainted opponents in previous years. There was a lot of movement in the Dem direction in Precinct 4, however, and that came to fruition in 2018 when Ken DeMerchant (yes, Sarah’s husband) flipped that seat. As you can see, there was no retreat in CC4 in 2020, and it probably wouldn’t take too much tinkering to make Precinct 1 a fifty-fifty or better proposition for Dems. It didn’t happen in either county this year, but in 2024, aided by demography and maybe a bit of gerrymandering, both Harris and Fort Bend counties can have 4-1 Democratic majorities on their Commissioners Courts.

I do have totals for the other Fort Bend races, though they’re not dramatically different from what you see here. I will put them together in a future post just to have it on the record. As always, let me know what you think.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

Astrodome renovation officially on hold

Not a surprise, given everything that is going on right now.

Still here

The COVID-19 pandemic upended most aspects of normal life, but this year has clutched dearly to one bit of normalcy for Houston residents: inaction on the Astrodome.

For 12 years, the architectural triumph that put Houston on the map — or the past-its-prime hunk of steel and cement, depending on who you ask — has sat, largely abandoned off Loop 610. Harris County Commissioners Court in 2018 approved a $105 million plan to transform the facility into a parking garage and event venue.

Two years later, work has barely begun. The project is on hold indefinitely and its funding sources have dried up. Fans of the dome must face a hard truth: This plan to renovate the building appears doomed.

“The only construction we’ve done is removal of asbestos and demolition work to enable that,” County Engineer John Blount said. “There’s been no real construction toward building the parking structure.”

There are two reasons for what elected officials do or not do: money and politics. The current Astrodome plan strikes out on both, the county’s current leaders say.

Former County Judge Ed Emmett was one of the most vocal proponents of renovating the dome, which the Republican argued would be ludicrous to demolish since it is structurally sound and already paid for by the county.

Even though voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal to convert the 55-year-old structure into event and exhibit space, Emmett convinced his colleagues to support the current, pared-down version in 2018, which he hoped to see through to its completion.

Nine months later, however, his re-election bid was denied in a stunning upset by Lina Hidalgo, who helped Democrats flip Harris County Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation. She immediately put the project on hold, concerned the project did not make fiscal sense.

Hidalgo, who was in middle school the last time the Dome hosted an event in the early 2000s, does not share the same enthusiasm for revitalizing the landmark as her predecessor. With an agenda to radically change how county government interacts with residents, through increased spending on social programs and infrastructure, Hidalgo has never seen the Astrodome as a pressing issue.

Hidalgo recognizes the Dome’s place in history but looks at the issue through the lens of what is best for the community, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.

“She’s not opposed to working to find ways to bring it to life, and we’ve been in touch with nonprofits on that,” Lemaitre said. “But right now, we can’t justify prioritizing putting public dollars or governing on it.”

[…]

Beth Wiedower Jackson, president of the Astrodome Conservancy, acknowledges there is little chance construction resumes on the 2018 plan. She said Hidalgo has said she is open to a new proposal, and agrees with the nonprofit that a repurposed Dome should produce a revenue stream for Harris County.

Jackson said that while the conservancy does not yet have a budget in mind, the group has begun searching for private funding partners and hopes to present a more expansive plan to Commissioners Court in 18 to 24 months. While frustrating to start over, she said the group instead views it as an opportunity.

“It is prudent to stop and push pause and re-center this project as many times as we need to,” Jackson said. “Do we have an opportunity now to think bigger, and more holistically, and greener and smarter about what it looks like? Hell yes. That’s exciting for us.”

The last mention I had of the Astrodome was September 2019 (“on hold for now”), and before that was January 2019 and October 2018, when Ed Emmett was still County Judge and we were looking at a March 2019 start to further construction. I wasn’t born here and don’t have the emotional connection to the Dome that some people do, but I support the Emmett-produced 2018 plan for the Dome, and agree with the assessment that the best thing to do is to find some use for it. I also agree that the county has much bigger priorities right now than this, and it won’t hurt anything to put it all on the back burner for the next year or so, when we are hopefully out of the current pandemic hole we are now in. If the plan has shifted by then from the Emmett plan to something that offloads most of the funding and responsibility to non-profits, that’s fine too. Even if we’d been working on the Emmett plan all along, it’s not like we’d have been doing anything with the Dome this year anyway. We’ll get back to it when it makes more sense to do so.

Do we still have to worry about the Elections Administrator’s office?

I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but…

Isabel Longoria

This year, Harris County began the process of consolidating the two offices that have historically handled elections — the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office — under one roof.

Isabel Longoria, a special advisor on voting rights to the county clerk, was sworn in to lead the new office last month.

“Fundamentally the office is shifting from being reactive to proactive,” Longoria told the Signal. “Under the tax office and county clerk offices, since elections and voter registration were just one part of what they did, it was always kind of like, ‘oh shit elections are coming, now what’ or ‘oh shit, we’ve got to register voters, now what’ — now we have the capacity to say that this is our focus year-round.”

Harris County voters are already benefiting from some new practices, some they can see and some they can’t. Election results in the county are now updating every thirty minutes, and behind the scenes, election officials are working more closely together. For example, Longoria said the heads of both the voter registration and elections department were in the same room at NRG on election day.

[…]

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Harris County informing them that Longoria’s newly created office did not exist. Paxton argued that the county violated Texas election code by creating the office without the proper timing and without appropriately informing the Texas Secretary of State. He gave the county two weeks to take “corrective action” before his office would intervene.

Harris County Commissioners Court was unmoved by the threat, the county attorney replied to Paxton detailing the paperwork, and nothing has come of it since. And business as usual has continued at the elections administrator’s office, Longoria said.

“I think he just wanted to make sure we filed our paperwork, and we did,” Longoria said. “That’s it. It’s one of those things where… yeah… nothing happened.”

That story was published on December 14, right after the District B runoff, which was the first election fully administered by the new office. It was also two weeks after Ken Paxton’s temper tantrum about the slow notification of the office’s creation and the appointment of Longoria as the chief. It’s now been four weeks since Paxton raised the possibility of taking Harris County to court if they didn’t take “corrective action” within two weeks. I guess Vince Ryan’s email to Paxton settled the matter, which suggests that maybe Paxton was making a much bigger deal over a minor boo-boo than he needed to make. Of course, he’s been a pretty busy man since then, what with being raided by the FBI and trying to overturn the election and all, so maybe he just hasn’t gotten back around to this. Sometimes these things just take longer than you think they will, you know?

Precinct analysis: The judicial averages

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2

As you know, I use the average totals and percentages from local judicial races as my go-to metric for determining partisan indexes for each district. That’s because these are two-candidate races, and generally speaking people vote in them on the party label and not on detailed knowledge of the individual candidates. I’ve looked at this data in various ways over the years – in 2018, it was all about undervoting, as my contribution to the deeply annoying great straight-ticket voting debate. This year, I just want to provide as comprehensive a look as I can at what the partisan index of each district is, so without further ado here are the averages and minimum/maximum values for each district:


Dist    Avg R    Avg D  Avg R%  Avg D%
======================================
CD02  180,657  152,260  54.26%  45.74%
CD07  152,705  147,943  50.79%  49.21%
CD08   25,930   14,830  63.62%  36.38%
CD09   37,855  119,136  24.11%  75.89%
CD10  103,043   58,975  63.60%  36.40%
CD18   59,751  178,574  25.07%  74.93%
CD22   21,796   19,965  52.19%  47.81%
CD29   49,285  100,975  32.80%  67.20%
CD36   82,990   47,534  63.58%  36.42%
				
SBOE4 106,801  333,572  24.25%  75.75%
SBOE6 387,513  345,132  52.89%  47.11%
SBOE8 219,698  161,490  57.64%  42.36%
				
SD04   55,837   22,370  71.40%  28.60%
SD06   57,502  117,156  32.92%  67.08%
SD07  236,992  169,822  58.26%  41.74%
SD11   77,482   46,126  62.68%  37.32%
SD13   38,020  158,384  19.36%  80.64%
SD15  114,322  192,386  37.27%  62.73%
SD17  118,535  122,335  49.21%  50.79%
SD18   15,323   11,618  56.88%  43.12%
				
HD126  39,112   33,088  54.17%  45.83%
HD127  54,309   34,783  60.96%  39.04%
HD128  48,197   21,688  68.97%  31.03%
HD129  48,127   34,606  58.17%  41.83%
HD130  70,364   31,748  68.91%  31.09%
HD131  10,092   44,290  18.56%  81.44%
HD132  50,934   47,797  51.59%  48.41%
HD133  50,892   35,660  58.80%  41.20%
HD134  49,172   56,015  46.75%  53.25%
HD135  36,694   36,599  50.07%  49.93%
HD137  10,422   20,732  33.45%  66.55%
HD138  31,922   30,597  51.06%  48.94%
HD139  15,711   44,501  26.09%  73.91%
HD140   9,326   21,677  30.08%  69.92%
HD141   7,106   35,937  16.51%  83.49%
HD142  13,933   41,496  25.14%  74.86%
HD143  11,999   24,126  33.21%  66.79%
HD144  13,786   16,469  45.57%  54.43%
HD145  14,992   26,765  35.90%  64.10%
HD146  11,408   43,008  20.96%  79.04%
HD147  15,323   52,737  22.51%  77.49%
HD148  22,392   36,300  38.15%  61.85%
HD149  21,640   30,536  41.47%  58.53%
HD150  56,160   39,038  58.99%  41.01%
				
CC1    93,365  277,707  25.16%  74.84%
CC2   150,891  143,324  51.29%  48.71%
CC3   228,295  207,558  52.38%  47.62%
CC4   241,461  211,606  53.29%  46.71%
				
JP1    93,441  162,045  36.57%  63.43%
JP2    34,172   48,572  41.30%  58.70%
JP3    51,782   67,626  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   235,236  182,956  56.25%  43.75%
JP5   204,805  212,367  49.09%  50.91%
JP6     8,152   26,921  23.24%  76.76%
JP7    18,654   99,583  15.78%  84.22%
JP8    67,769   40,125  62.81%  37.19%


Dist    Max R    Min D  Max R%  Min D%
======================================
CD02  185,931  148,006  55.68%  44.32%
CD07  159,695  144,247  52.54%  47.46%
CD08   26,439   14,393  64.75%  35.25%
CD09   40,013  116,625  25.54%  74.46%
CD10  105,177   57,133  64.80%  35.20%
CD18   63,096  174,763  26.53%  73.47%
CD22   22,436   19,262  53.81%  46.19%
CD29   55,680   94,745  37.02%  62.98%
CD36   84,840   45,634  65.02%  34.98%
				
SBOE4 117,378  322,667  26.67%  73.33%
SBOE6 401,507  336,009  54.44%  45.56%
SBOE8 224,690  156,133  59.00%  41.00%
				
SD04   56,905   21,704  72.39%  27.61%
SD06   64,474  110,326  36.88%  63.12%
SD07  242,602  164,480  59.60%  40.40%
SD11   79,333   44,482  64.07%  35.93%
SD13   40,293  155,638  20.56%  79.44%
SD15  118,813  187,188  38.83%  61.17%
SD17  124,541  119,169  51.10%  48.90%
SD18   15,619   11,279  58.07%  41.93%
				
HD126  40,053   31,945  55.63%  44.37%
HD127  55,452   33,703  62.20%  37.80%
HD128  49,089   20,798  70.24%  29.76%
HD129  49,387   33,547  59.55%  40.45%
HD130  71,729   30,669  70.05%  29.95%
HD131  11,027   43,306  20.30%  79.70%
HD132  52,228   46,423  52.94%  47.06%
HD133  53,008   34,318  60.70%  39.30%
HD134  53,200   53,340  49.93%  50.07%
HD135  37,600   35,481  51.45%  48.55%
HD137  10,831   20,255  34.84%  65.16%
HD138  32,956   29,493  52.77%  47.23%
HD139  16,700   43,426  27.78%  72.22%
HD140  10,796   20,276  34.75%  65.25%
HD141   7,844   35,148  18.25%  81.75%
HD142  15,015   40,325  27.13%  72.87%
HD143  13,599   22,554  37.62%  62.38%
HD144  14,965   15,326  49.40%  50.60%
HD145  16,455   25,318  39.39%  60.61%
HD146  11,924   42,368  21.96%  78.04%
HD147  16,147   51,800  23.76%  76.24%
HD148  23,754   35,054  40.39%  59.61%
HD149  22,315   29,713  42.89%  57.11%
HD150  57,274   37,933  60.16%  39.84%
				
CC1    98,310  271,971  26.55%  73.45%
CC2   158,199  135,874  53.80%  46.20%
CC3   236,301  201,920  53.92%  46.08%
CC4   248,120  205,046  54.75%  45.25%
				
JP1    99,574  157,709  38.70%  61.30%
JP2    36,841   45,917  44.52%  55.48%
JP3    54,016   65,253  45.29%  54.71%
JP4   240,145  177,376  57.52%  42.48%
JP5   211,698  206,389  50.63%  49.37%
JP6     9,694   25,425  27.60%  72.40%
JP7    19,825   98,162  16.80%  83.20%
JP8    69,422   38,580  64.28%  35.72%


Dist    Min R    Max D  Min R%  Max D%
======================================
CD02  175,786  157,942  52.67%  47.33%
CD07  145,575  154,644  48.49%  51.51%
CD08   25,520   15,264  62.57%  37.43%
CD09   36,275  121,193  23.04%  76.96%
CD10  101,112   61,042  62.36%  37.64%
CD18   56,673  182,314  23.71%  76.29%
CD22   21,218   20,673  50.65%  49.35%
CD29   45,744  105,745  30.20%  69.80%
CD36   81,336   49,507  62.16%  37.84%
				
SBOE4 100,933  342,178  22.78%  77.22%
SBOE6 373,961  359,113  51.01%  48.99%
SBOE8 215,025  167,034  56.28%  43.72%
				
SD04   55,047   23,216  70.34%  29.66%
SD06   53,562  122,474  30.43%  69.57%
SD07  231,452  175,578  56.86%  43.14%
SD11   75,844   48,065  61.21%  38.79%
SD13   36,086  160,806  18.33%  81.67%
SD15  109,597  198,247  35.60%  64.40%
SD17  112,679  127,956  46.83%  53.17%
SD18   15,000   11,985  55.59%  44.41%
				
HD126  38,215   34,107  52.84%  47.16%
HD127  53,344   35,933  59.75%  40.25%
HD128  47,390   22,477  67.83%  32.17%
HD129  46,964   36,012  56.60%  43.40%
HD130  69,298   32,900  67.81%  32.19%
HD131   9,584   44,980  17.56%  82.44%
HD132  49,625   49,260  50.18%  49.82%
HD133  48,359   37,729  56.17%  43.83%
HD134  45,698   59,519  43.43%  56.57%
HD135  35,662   37,653  48.64%  51.36%
HD137   9,997   21,240  32.00%  68.00%
HD138  30,912   31,792  49.30%  50.70%
HD139  14,891   45,442  24.68%  75.32%
HD140   8,496   22,687  27.25%  72.75%
HD141   6,751   36,444  15.63%  84.37%
HD142  13,366   42,296  24.01%  75.99%
HD143  11,100   25,218  30.56%  69.44%
HD144  13,029   17,345  42.90%  57.10%
HD145  14,011   28,167  33.22%  66.78%
HD146  10,824   43,630  19.88%  80.12%
HD147  14,469   53,867  21.17%  78.83%
HD148  21,053   38,031  35.63%  64.37%
HD149  20,955   31,398  40.03%  59.97%
HD150  55,070   40,198  57.81%  42.19%
				
CC1    88,636  283,723  23.80%  76.20%
CC2   146,468  149,847  49.43%  50.57%
CC3   220,181  215,729  50.51%  49.49%
CC4   234,765  219,028  51.73%  48.27%
				
JP1    87,533  168,977  34.12%  65.88%
JP2    32,564   50,632  39.14%  60.86%
JP3    50,336   69,338  42.06%  57.94%
JP4   230,567  188,394  55.03%  44.97%
JP5   197,305  219,993  47.28%  52.72%
JP6     7,269   28,198  20.50%  79.50%
JP7    17,578  100,870  14.84%  85.16%
JP8    66,324   41,925  61.27%  38.73%

There were 15 contested District or County court races, with another 12 that had only a Democrat running. All of the numbers are from the contested races. The first table is just the average vote total for each candidate in that district; I then computed the percentage from those average values. For the second and third tables, I used the Excel MAX and MIN functions to get the highest and lowest vote totals for each party in each district. It should be noted that the max Republican and min Democratic totals in a given district (and vice versa) may not belong to the candidates from the same race, as the total number of votes in each race varies. Consider these to be a bit more of a theoretical construct, to see what the absolute best and worst case scenario for each party was this year.

One could argue that Democrats did better than expected this year, given the partisan levels they faced. Both Lizzie Fletcher and Jon Rosenthal won re-election, in CD07 and HD135, despite running in districts that were tilted slightly against them. The one Republican that won in a district that tilted Democratic was Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, who won as his JP colleague Russ Ridgway fell; as previously noted, Dan Crenshaw clearly outperformed the baseline in CD02. The tilt in Commissioners Court Precinct 3 was too much for Michael Moore to overcome, though perhaps redistricting and four more years of demographic change will move things in the Democratic direction for 2024. As for Precinct 2, I believe Adrian Garcia would have been re-elected if he had been on the ballot despite the Republican tilt in that precinct, mostly because the Latino Democratic candidates generally carried the precinct. He will also get a hand from redistricting when that happens. I believe being the incumbent would have helped him regardless, as Jack Morman ran ahead of the pack in 2018, just not by enough to hang on.

The “Republican max” (table 2) and “Democratic max” (table 3) values give you a picture of the range of possibility in each district. At their high end for Republicans, CD02 and SBOE6 don’t look particularly competitive, while CD07 and HD135 look like they really got away, while HD144 looks like a missed opportunity, and JP5 could have maybe been held in both races. HD134 remained stubbornly Democratic, however. On the flip side, you can see that at least one Democratic judicial candidate took a majority in CD07, HD135, HD138, and CC2, while CC3 and CC4 both look enticingly close, and neither HDs 134 nor 144 look competitive at all. If nothing else, this is a reminder that even in these judicial races, there can be a lot of variance.

On the subject of undervoting, as noted in the Appellate Court posts, the dropoff rate in those races was about 4.7% – there wasn’t much change from the first race to the fourth. For the contested local judicial races, the undervote rate ranged from 5.06% in the first race to 6.54%, in the seventh (contested) race from the end. There was a downward trend as you got farther down the ballot, but it wasn’t absolute – as noted, there were six races after the most-undervoted race, all with higher vote totals. The difference between the highest turnout race to the lowest was about 24K votes, from 1.568 million to 1.544 million. It’s not nothing, but in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty minimal.

The twelve unopposed Democrats in judicial races clearly show how unopposed candidates always do better than candidates that have opponents. Every unopposed judicial candidate collected over one million votes. Kristen Hawkins, the first unopposed judicial candidate, and thus most likely the first unopposed candidate on everyone’s ballot, led the way with 1.068 million votes, about 200K more votes than Michael Gomez, who was the leading votegetter in a contested race. Every unopposed Democratic candidate got a vote from at least 61.25% of all voters, with Hawkins getting a vote from 64.44% of all. I have always assumed that some number of people feel like they need to vote in each race, even the ones with only one candidate.

I’m going to analyze the vote in the non-Houston cities next. As always, please let me know what you think.

Ken Paxton’s attempted jihad against Harris County

Wow.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to get the Trump administration to revoke millions in federal COVID relief funding that Harris County budgeted for expanding mail-in voting earlier this year, newly revealed records show.

Paxton wrote in a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Harris County’s plan was an “abuse” of the county’s authority and an “egregious” violation of state law. The letter was obtained and published by the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”

The letter to Mnuchin illustrates the lengths Paxton went in his efforts to stop Harris and other counties from making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic, which included suing Harris County as it tried to send mail ballots applications to all 2.4 million of its registered voters. The mail-ballot application push was part of the county’s $27.2 million plan to expand voting options, funded in large part through CARES Act money.

[…]

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mnuchin heeded Paxton’s request to investigate how Harris County used the funding.

In a written statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the loss of the funds “would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely” during an important election held in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible,” she said. “To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party accused the attorney general of “picking fights” to distract from his personal life.

“In the middle of the biggest pandemic in American history, every Texan should have been afforded the opportunity to vote as safely as possible. Indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to try to pick fights to distract away from his personal life and his abuse of office. Paxton is a carnival barker who has made Texas a laughingstock with his ridiculous inquiries and lawsuits. To restore trust in the Attorney General’s office, we must all band together to vote him and his abuse of power out in 2022.”

I suppose if there’s one thing that the year 2020 has been good for, it’s to serve as a reminder to me that I am still capable of being shocked. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it was clear from the beginning that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins’ aggressive efforts to make voting easier, ably funded by Commissioners Court, were going to draw a heated response. I guess I had just assumed that the lawsuits filed by Paxton and others against the various things that Hollins pioneered were the response, with bills filed in the 2021 Legislature the culmination, but I had not expected this.

It is interesting that Paxton chose to fire this particular shot in secret. We would have found out about it at the time if he had succeeded, of course, but it’s strangely out of character for Paxton to do something like this under cover of darkness. Say what you will about Ken Paxton, the man does not lack confidence in the correctness of his positions. I don’t know what his motivation was for not being front and center about this – I mean, we saw the lawsuit he filed to overturn the election. Shame, or fear of being publicly dragged, are not inhibitions for him. Maybe he was afraid of spooking Secretary Mnuchin, who is generally less cartoon-y in his villainy. I’m open to suggestion on this point.

The story mentions that this letter came from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which led me to this:

CREW obtained Paxton’s letter to Mnuchin as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which remains ongoing.

The lawsuit in question is over the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. We might never have found out about this scurrilous and cowardly action otherwise.

I was going to spend more time in this post pointing out that Paxton’s allegations were 1) essentially baseless, and 2) should have been made in a lawsuit, as this would have fallen squarely under his law enforcement authority if Harris County were indeed breaking the law as he claimed, but honestly that CREW article laid it out thoroughly, so go read that for those details. The main takeaway here is that this wasn’t just a partisan dispute, which could and should have been carried out in public as so many other mostly ginned-up voting “controversies” this year were, it was 100% unadulterated bullshit from our despicable Attorney General. He’s not feeling any pressure to step down from his fellow Republicans, and do brace yourself for a pardon from our Felon in Chief, so it really is up to us to vote his sorry ass out in 2022. The Texas Tribune has more.

Precinct analysis: Commissioners Court and JP/Constable precincts

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts

We now zoom in for a look at various county districts, which are also called “precincts”. I don’t know why we have County Commissioner precincts and JP/Constable precincts to go along with regular voting precincts – it makes for a certain amount of either monotony or inaccuracy when I have to write about them – but it is what it is. Dems made a priority of County Commissioner Precinct 3 and didn’t get it, but did flip a longstanding Republican Justice of the Peace bench.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,536  295,657  3,355  1,338  23.16%  75.64%  0.86%  0.34%
CC2   154,159  154,516  3,250  1,028  49.26%  49.37%  1.04%  0.33%
CC3   220,205  234,323  4,876  1,328  47.79%  50.86%  1.06%  0.29%
CC4   235,730  233,697  5,338  1,435  49.50%  49.08%  1.12%  0.30%

Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    85,426  182,182  3,199    822  31.45%  67.07%  1.18%  0.30%
JP2    35,864   51,624    741    330  40.50%  58.29%  0.84%  0.37%
JP3    53,543   70,746  1,055    375  42.59%  56.27%  0.84%  0.30%
JP4   232,147  199,750  4,698  1,250  53.02%  45.62%  1.07%  0.29%
JP5   199,292  236,253  4,525  1,384  45.14%  53.52%  1.03%  0.31%
JP6     8,554   28,500    357    158  22.77%  75.86%  0.95%  0.42%
JP7    17,977  104,457    835    464  14.53%  84.42%  0.67%  0.38%
JP8    67,827   44,681  1,409    346  59.36%  39.10%  1.23%  0.30%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    94,601  278,805  6,735  3,743  24.20%  71.33%  1.72%  0.96%
CC2   152,772  144,150  6,038  2,703  48.82%  46.06%  1.93%  0.86%
CC3   229,016  214,734  7,608  3,129  49.71%  46.61%  1.65%  0.68%
CC4   241,839  216,469  8,836  3,314  50.79%  45.46%  1.86%  0.70%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    93,109  167,648  4,655  2,101  34.28%  61.72%  1.71%  0.77%
JP2    35,186   48,126  1,638    946  39.73%  54.34%  1.85%  1.07%
JP3    52,663   67,120  2,257  1,121  41.89%  53.39%  1.80%  0.89%
JP4   235,664  186,072  8,077  2,923  53.82%  42.50%  1.84%  0.67%
JP5   205,996  217,791  7,543  3,288  46.66%  49.33%  1.71%  0.74%
JP6     8,342   26,680    795    472  22.20%  71.02%  2.12%  1.26%
JP7    19,157   99,241  2,051  1,291  15.48%  80.21%  1.66%  1.04%
JP8    68,111   41,480  2,201    747  59.61%  36.30%  1.93%  0.65%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,035  276,291  7,330  5,863  23.03%  70.68%  1.88%  1.50%
CC2   146,598  145,934  6,329  3,756  46.84%  46.63%  2.02%  1.20%
CC3   223,852  208,983  9,167  5,678  48.59%  45.36%  1.99%  1.23%
CC4   236,362  212,151 10,305  5,711  49.64%  44.55%  2.16%  1.20%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    90,194  163,531  5,804  3,640  33.20%  60.20%  2.14%  1.34%
JP2    32,881   49,373  1,605  1,218  37.13%  55.75%  1.81%  1.38%
JP3    50,924   67,644  2,207  1,398  40.51%  53.81%  1.76%  1.11%
JP4   230,575  183,069  9,233  5,036  52.66%  41.81%  2.11%  1.15%
JP5   200,704  213,004  8,895  5,800  45.46%  48.25%  2.01%  1.31%
JP6     7,490   27,172    730    651  19.94%  72.33%  1.94%  1.73%
JP7    17,970   98,421  2,115  2,039  14.52%  79.54%  1.71%  1.65%
JP8    66,109   41,145  2,542  1,226  57.86%  36.01%  2.22%  1.07%

First things first, the Justice of the Peace and Constable precincts are the same. There are eight of them, and for reasons I have never understood they are different sizes – as you can see, JPs 4 and 5 are roughly the size of Commissioners Court precincts, at least as far as voting turnout goes, JP1 is smaller but still clearly larger than the rest, and JP6 is tiny. When I get to have a conversation with someone at the county about their plans for redistricting, I plan to ask if there’s any consideration for redrawing these precincts. Note that there are two JPs in each precinct – Place 1 was up for election this cycle, with Place 2 on the ballot in 2022. The Constables are on the ballot with the Place 1 JPs. I’ll return to them in a minute.

You may recall from my first pass at Harris County data, Donald Trump had a super slim lead in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, home of Adrian Garcia. That was from before the provisional ballots were cured. There were something like five or six thousand provisional ballots, and overall they were pretty Democratic – I noted before that this almost pushed Jane Robinson over the top in her appellate court race – though they weren’t uniformly pro-Dem; Wesley Hunt in CD07 and Mike Schofield in HD132 netted a few votes from the provisionals, among those that I looked at more closely. In CC2, the provisional ballots put Joe Biden ever so slightly ahead of Trump, by a teensy but incrementally larger lead than Trump had had. MJ Hegar lost CC2 by a noticeable amount, and Chrysta Castaneda missed it by a hair.

Now, in 2018 Beto won CC2 by over six points. Every statewide candidate except for Lupe Valdez carried it, and every countywide candidate except for Lina Hidalgo carried it. Oddly enough, Adrian Garcia himself just squeaked by, taking the lead about as late in the evening as Judge Hidalgo did to claim the majority on the Court for Dems. I’d have thought Garcia would easily run ahead of the rest of the ticket, but it was largely the reverse. The conclusion I drew from this was that being an incumbent Commissioner was an advantage – not quite enough of one in the end for Jack Morman, but almost.

I say that for the obvious reason that you might look at these numbers and be worried about Garcia’s future in 2022. I don’t think we can take anything for granted, but remember two things. One is what I just said, that there’s an incumbent’s advantage here, and I’d expect Garcia to benefit from it in two years’ time. And two, we will have new boundaries for these precincts by then. I fully expect that the Dem majority will make Garcia’s re-election prospects a little better, as the Republican majority had done for Morman in 2011.

The bigger question is what happens with the two Republican-held precincts. I’ve spoken about how there’s no spare capacity on the Republican side to bolster their existing districts while moving in on others. That’s not the case here for Dems with Commissioners Court. Given free rein, you could easily draw four reasonable Dem districts. The main thing that might hold you back is the Voting Rights Act, since you can’t retrogress Precinct 1. The more likely play is to dump some Republican turf from Precincts 2 and 3 into Precinct 4, making it redder while shoring up 2 for the Dems and making 3 more competitive. I wouldn’t sit around in my first term in office if I’m Tom Ramsey, is what I’m saying.

I should note that Beto also won CC3, as did Mike Collier and Justin Nelson and Kim Olson, but that’s largely it; I didn’t go back to check the various judicial races but my recollection is that maybe a couple of the Dem judicials carried it. Overall, CC3 was still mostly red in 2018, with a few blue incursions, and it remained so in 2020. I feel like it would be gettable in 2024 even without a boost from redistricting, but why take the chance? Dems can set themselves up here, and they should.

What about the office Dems flipped? That would be Justice of the Peace, Place 1, where longtime jurist Russ Ridgway finally met his match. You will note that Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap held on by a 51.5 to 48.5 margin, almost the exact mirror of Israel Garcia’s 51.4 to 48.6 win over Ridgway. What might account for the difference? For one, as we’ve seen, candidates with Latino surnames have generally done a couple of points better than the average. For two, it’s my observation that more people probably know their Constable’s name than either of their JPs’ names. Your neighborhood may participate in a Constable patrol program, and even if you don’t you’ve surely seen road signs saying that the streets are overseen by Constable so-and-so. I think those two factors may have made the difference; I’m told Garcia was a very active campaigner as well, and that could have helped, but I can’t confirm that or compare his activity to Dem Constable candidate Mark Alan Harrison, so I’ll just leave it as a second-hand observation. Dems can certainly aim for the Place 2 JP in Precinct 5, and even though Precinct 4 was in the red I’d really like to see someone run against Laryssa Korduba, who is (as of last report, anyway) the only JP in Harris County who no longer officiates weddings following the Obergefell ruling. She’s consistent about it, and acting legally by not doing any weddings, and that’s fine by me as a personal choice, but that doesn’t mean the people of Precinct 4 couldn’t do better for themselves. I’d like to see them have that choice in 2022.

Next up, some comparisons to 2012 and 2016. Next week, we get into judicial races and county races. Let me know what you think.

2020 precinct analysis: Introduction and overview

So I finally got a full canvass of the 2020 election in a nice and convenient spreadsheet form. I spent a fair amount of the Thanksgiving week doing what I usually do with it, to generate totals for all of the political districts. I also managed to find the spreadsheets I had done in 2012 and 2016, and generated some year-over-year comparisons. I also used the city proposition data from 2012 to separate out city of Houston returns from non-Houston Harris County for 2020.

There’s a lot of data here, is what I’m saying. Generating it is actually the easy part. I’ve been doing this for a long time – in this format, since at least 2008 – and it’s just a matter of lining everything up and applying the same Excel formulas as before. (I make heavy use of the “sumif” function, if you’re curious.) The challenge for me is in how to present what I generate. Well, the first challenge is in trying to figure out what it means, what is interesting or notable, what will make for a readable blog post, and then I have to figure out how to present it.

Again, the challenge here is not technical – I’ve done this before, many times – but philosophical. What pieces belong together? What comparisons do I want to make? What’s worth my time and effort, and yours?

You can judge for yourself how well I answer those questions. Here’s a list of the topics I intend to cover, in something approximating the order in which I’ll present them:

– Results by Congressional district, for President, Senate, and Railroad Commissioner. I’m using those three races in part because they’re the top of the ticket, in part because they’re the races most affected by the presence of third-party candidates, and in part because they offer some interesting points of comparison with 2012 and 2016. I will do separate posts on the judicial races, separating out the statewide, appellate, and district/county court races. I’ve often used the averages of local judicial races to measure partisan levels in various districts, but I want to see what differences exist when we look at the other types of judicial races.

I’ve always done Congressional district results in the past, but they were more ornamentation than substance. In part that’s because there wasn’t much to say about the Congressional districts before 2016, as none of them were drawn to be competitive, and in part because only some of them are fully within Harris County. With CDs 02 and 07 becoming multi-million dollar battlegrounds (also true for CDs 10 and 22, though as noted we only have partial data for these), and with redistricting on the horizon, I wanted to take a closer look at these districts.

– Results by State Rep districts, by Commissioners Court precincts, and by JP/Constable precincts. Same as above in terms of format and intent. The State Rep districts are my main currency in these analyses, because they are entirely contained within Harris County (something I hope will still be true post-redistricting) and because there have been some massive changes in them over time. I already know I’ll have a lot to say here.

– Judicial races as noted above, by type (state, appellate, local), and for all district types. While I use the local judicial averages as my overall expression for a given district’s partisan numbers, there’s some real variance in these races, and I want to examine that in some detail.

– Comparisons with 2012 and 2016. I’ve talked about this some before, but if the only point of comparison we emphasize this year is with 2018, we’re missing a lot of the forest for the trees. I can’t stress enough how much things have changed since 2012, but I’m going to try to show you. I will focus most of this on the State Rep districts, but will include some Congressional comparisons to highlight where the redistricting challenges will be.

– Whatever else comes up along the way. I’ve got city/county numbers, which will get its own post. I’ve looked at undervoting and third-party voting in the past, and may do something on that. I always find things I didn’t notice at first when I really dig into the data. If there’s something you’d like me to try to analyze, please let me know.

That’s what I’ve got so far. This will be several weeks’ worth of posts, so sit back and relax, it’s going to take some time. Let me know what you think.

More 2022 speculation

From Campos:

Judge Lina Hidalgo

I was watching “What’s Your Point” yesterday and the 2022 election was brought up. Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo would face an opponent in the Democratic Primary. My friend Bill King went a bit further and said that Judge Hidalgo would face an African American or former H-Town Mayor Annise Parker in the primary. Huh?

Anyone can plop down the $1,250 filing fee to run. I am not hearing among Democrats that Judge Hidalgo is doing a lousy job. I think she is doing a pretty good job. She’s promoting issues that Democrats like. What is wrong with rental assistance and supporting small businesses during a pandemic. She would be tough to beat in the Democratic Party Primary if you ask me.

I wonder where Bill and Mark are getting their local Democratic Party intel.

I have no idea where Mark Jones may get his intel, but let me state for the record that I am extremely skeptical of the idea that Bill King is in any way plugged into the local Democratic scene. I strongly suspect that neither of them have heard real chatter from reliable sources, but instead are speculating based on three factors:

1. The 2018 “That could have been me” hangover. I noted this before. As we know, there was a lot of talk about who might have run for County Judge in 2018, with Judge Hidalgo ultimately being the only person to file. Lots of people didn’t want to run against then-Judge Emmett for a variety of reasons, with Annise Parker being the best known of them. It is possible that someone who now regrets not throwing their hat into the ring in 2018 is considering a 2022 run, now that the main challenge is in March and not in November. For what it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything to this effect, but I don’t claim to be especially plugged in at this time, either.

2. The business interests. I am very much in the “Judge Hidalgo has done a fine job” camp, and I agree that she has acted very much in ways that Democratic primary voters would approve. But there are groups that don’t like bail reform, and there are groups that don’t like putting extra regulations on development, and there are groups that likely feel like their influence has waned under Judge Hidalgo and the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. If these folks now believe that Republicans are at a disadvantage running countywide, then one way to do something about that is to recruit and support a candidate for County Judge for the Democratic primary that will be more amenable to them and their concerns. It’s not the only thing they could do – I’m sure Commissioner Garcia will be targeted in November of 2022, though the Commissioners Court redistricting process may make that a less attractive option for them – but it’s on the menu. And let’s just say that I do believe Bill King is a reliable source of information for what the big capital crowd is thinking.

3. The real question is, can I win? Elections are funny things, and as we well know, the “best” candidate doesn’t always win. One question anyone who runs for office has to answer is who are my voters? Are there enough of them to get me past the finish line? I’m sure Bill King’s suggestion of a Black candidate running against Judge Hidalgo is based on the observation that there are a lot of Black voters in the Harris County Democratic primary, and that candidates often attempt to appeal to voters on affinity more than issues. Doesn’t mean such a person would be successful, or even a credible threat, but it’s a possibility.

All of this is my speculation about their speculation. We’re at the time in the calendar when people like to take early looks ahead to the next election, and no one ever keeps track of this sort of nattering, so why not put out a hot take or two. I’ve certainly indulged in this sort of thing before. It’s all fun and games until someone files a designation of Treasurer report. If there’s anything to any of this besides filling up some air time, we’ll know soon enough.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

The Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he said they illegally created an independent elections office and hired an administrator.

The move invites a potential lawsuit from the attorney general, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was confident the county would win.

“This is another example of (Attorney) General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans,” Ellis said.

He noted that Paxton sued to prevent counties from installing more than one drop box for mail-in ballots during this fall’s general election. The attorney general also convinced the Texas Supreme Court to block Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.5 million registered voters. Paxton also had issued an opinion suggesting the county’s drive-thru voting arrangements violated the state election code.

[…]

In a written response to Paxton Tuesday, [County Attorney Vince] Ryan acknowledged that Harris County had not promptly informed the state of those actions. He said, however, that Texas law says the delays do not change their validity.

Harris County joined more than 100 other Texas counties in creating an independent elections office, which combines the election management role of the county clerk with the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted in favor of the change, arguing it is more efficient. The two Republicans were opposed, saying it created an administrator who is unaccountable to voters.

The court was similarly divided in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion. Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Paxton’s threat as a distraction and said Longoria must be able to do her job.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said Ellis’s criticism of Paxton was unfounded. The attorney general has a duty to ensure the law is followed, he said.

“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think there is some evil intent,” Cagle said.

See here for the background, and let’s put aside for the moment the laughable idea that Ken Paxton has any moral authority when it comes to telling people to obey the rules. I dismissed Paxton’s threats as mere bluster, but I’m an Internet smartass. There are no real consequences when I’m wrong about something. I certainly hope Vince Ryan is right about this – and as a side matter, I hope incoming County Attorney Christian Menefee was consulted and is on board with this, because it will be his mess to clean up if Ryan and the rest of us are wrong. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if we’re about to be dragged into a prolonged court battle, or if this was indeed just hot air. The Texas Signal and the Chron’s Erica Greider have more.

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

Someone is going to have to help me understand this, because I’m clearly missing something.

Best mugshot ever

Harris County failed to follow the Texas Election Code when it created an independent election administration office, rendering the office and the appointment of Isabel Longoria as administrator null and void, according to Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the county attorney’s office, Paxton said Harris County did not inform the secretary of state in a timely fashion, as required by law, when it created the new office in July and when an administrator was selected in October to run it.

“As a result, neither the Commissioners Court’s July 14, 2020 order nor the Election Commission’s October 30, 2020 appointment of (Isabel) Longoria to the position holds any legal weight,” Paxton wrote. “In short, the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist.”

Longoria’s appointment should be rescinded, the attorney general said.

County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth referred questions to County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who deferred to the County Attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to the secretary of state.

“We feel confident that, after they review this, all misunderstandings will be cleared up,” Soard said.

Longoria said in a statement that the county attorney had advised her there were no procedural issues with the creation of her office; she will continue working.

[…]

The Election Code requires counties to inform the secretary of state within three days of creating an elections administration office. Within six days, it must inform the state of the appointment of an administrator.

Paxton said Harris County waited two weeks to inform the secretary of state it had created the elections administration office and three weeks to formally disclose the hiring of Longoria as administrator, a senior aide in the County Clerk’s Office.

Harris County must take “corrective action” within 14 days, the attorney general said, or the state may take the issue to court. Paxton did not respond to a question asking why his office did not address Harris County’s error in July.

County Attorney Vince Ryan placed an item on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda to discuss the matter.

Here’s the relevant statutes relating to an Elections Administrator:

Sec. 31.031. CREATION OF POSITION. (a) The commissioners court by written order may create the position of county elections administrator for the county.

(b) The order must state the date the creation of the position of administrator is effective. The effective date may not be later than 12 months after the date the order is adopted.

(c) To facilitate the orderly transfer of duties on the effective date, the order may authorize the commissioners court to employ the administrator-designate not earlier than the 90th day before the effective date of the creation of the position, at a salary not to exceed that to be paid to the administrator.

(d) Not later than the third day after the date the order is adopted, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the order to:

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

Sec. 31.032. APPOINTMENT OF ADMINISTRATOR; COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION. (a) The position of county elections administrator is filled by appointment of the county election commission, which consists of:

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

(3) the county tax assessor-collector, as secretary; and

(4) the county chair of each political party that made nominations by primary election for the last general election for state and county officers preceding the date of the meeting at which the appointment is made.

(b) The affirmative vote of a majority of the commission’s membership is necessary for the appointment of an administrator.

(c) Each appointment must be evidenced by a written resolution or order signed by the number of commission members necessary to make the appointment. Not later than the third day after the date an administrator is appointed, the officer who presided at the meeting shall file a signed copy of the resolution or order with the county clerk. Not later than the third day after the date the copy is filed, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the resolution or order to the secretary of state.

(d) The initial appointment may be made at any time after the adoption of the order creating the position.

The relevant sections relating to timing are highlighted in bold. As was noted in the comments to the Chron story, there’s nothing in the laws to say what happens if a county, for whatever the reason, fails to do the paperwork in a timely fashion. Saying that the appointment is null and void for being a few days late is to be the equivalent of saying that because there were a couple of precincts in Wayne County that didn’t exactly balance we need to throw out every vote in the county. I may not be a lawyer, but I can tell when the remedy doesn’t fit the alleged infraction. And if we’re going to be super-technical about it, then let Commissioners Court rescind and re-appoint Longoria today, and notify the Secretary of State later in the day via email, fax, Fed Ex, town crier, and unfurling a giant poster with Isabel Longoria’s picture on it outside the SOS office tomorrow morning. Will that suffice?

This part puzzles me even more:

Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a frequent critic of local Democrats, urged Commissioners Court to revoke Longoria’s appointment.

“Appointing an administrator of elections in the nation’s third largest county should have been made by following the prescribed legal process to the letter,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The attorney general’s letter is specific that the duties of that office should be returned to the elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector.”

The dispute is the latest in a series of disagreements between Texas leaders and Harris County officials over how the state’s largest county runs its elections. Paxton and state Elections Director Keith Ingram see their actions as reigning in rogue local leaders; Hidalgo and county officials view them as unnecessary micromanagement.

I mean, we’re aware that all of the election innovation that made Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt SO MAD last month was done by the County Clerk, right? Not a non-partisan official whose bosses include the Chair of the Harris County GOP? I’m trying real hard here, but I fail to see what they think they’d be gaining by putting Teneshia Hudspeth in charge of running elections. Do they think she wouldn’t keep doing what she did while Chris Hollins and Diane Trautman were in charge? Have they forgotten that she’s an elected Democrat? Seriously, what is their angle here? I mean, other than being little pettifoggers with a grievance. Like I said up front, someone help me understand this one.

A closer look at county races, Part 2

Part One is here. As before, this is about taking a closer look at the counties where Democrats made gains from 2016.

Collin County: Our reach may have exceeded our grasp, but it’s important to note that progress was made. A quick recap, comparing 2016:


CD03: 61.2% - 34.6%
Statewides: GOP 59-62%, Dem 32-35%
HD33: 62.6% - 34.1%
HD66: 57.4% - 38.7%
HD67: 56.6% - 39.7%
HD70: 67.1% - 28.5%
HD89: 63.5% - 32.7%

No candidates for District Court, Commissioner’s Court, countywide offices, or Constable. One candidate for Justice of the Peace.

To 2020:


CD03: 55.1% - 42.9%
Statewides: GOP 54-57%, Dem 42-44%
HD33: 59.0% - 41.0%
HD66: 49.6% - 48.9%
HD67: 51.7% - 48.3%
HD70: 61.8% - 38.2%
HD89: 59.4% - 38.5%

Candidates for seven of nine District Court benches (all in the 42-44% range), County Tax Assessor (41%), and both Commissioners Court seats (41% and 39%).

Still no candidates for any of the four Constable races. Hard to say how competitive any of them might have been, at least until a full canvass is available, but in Constable Precinct 3, the unopposed Republican got 115K votes, with 88K undervotes. Given that unopposed candidates always get more votes than candidates with major party opponents, this was probably not far from a 50-50 race. I’d be eyeing this office in 2024 if I’m a Collin County Democrat. Overall, a shift of about six or seven points down for the GOP and up for the Dems.

Denton County: Same basic story as Collin, except that we held the one State Rep race we won in 2018. Here’s the same presentation, for 2016:


CD24: 53.7% - 42.0%
CD26: 65.2% - 30.7%
Statewides: GOP 60-62%, Dem 32-34%
HD63: No Dem
HD64: 61.6% - 38.4%
HD65: 56.3% - 43.7%
HD106: No Dem

One candidate for District Court (36.3%), no candidates for any county race.

And 2020


CD24: 45.9% - 50.4%
CD26: 59.5% - 38.4%
Statewides: GOP 55-58%, Dem 40-43%
HD63: 67.4% - 32.6%
HD64: 54.9% - 45.1%
HD65: 48.5% - 51.5%
HD106: 58.5% - 41.5%

Still just one candidate for District Court, getting 42.6%. Both County Commissioner races were challenged, but still no candidates for any of the six Constable spots. Here I can’t say which if any may have been competitive, as the election night returns don’t tell me the undervotes. No matter how you look at it, you want to get some Dem candidates in these races, to help with downballot turnout.

Hays County: Like Williamson, a flip to Dems, with some downballot success as well. The big prize here was HD45, where Rep. Erin Zwiener knocked off incumbent Jason Isaac in 2018, two years after Isaac had been unopposed for re-election. Rep. Zwiener easily held on against Carrie Isaac, winning with 53.3% of the vote. In 2016, Lamar Smith took the CD21 portion of Hays 53-39, Roger Williams won the CD25 portion of Hays 60-35, and statewide Republicans won with 47-49% over Dems with scores in the 40-44% range. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost in SBOE5 49-46. There was one District Court race, with an unopposed Republican, the Democratic candidate for Sheriff lost by 13 points, and there was no Dem running for Tax Assessor. There were a mix of Dem and GOP winners, some unopposed, for Commissioners Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.

In 2020, Wendy Davis took the CD21 piece 49-46, while Julie Oliver held Roger Williams to a 57-41 edge. (There’s also a piece of CD35 in Hays County. Pound for pound, Hays is at least as sliced up at the Congressional level as Travis County is.) Statewide Dems were now universal winners in Hays, ranging from Chrysta Castaneda’s 49.8% to Elizabeth Frizell’s 53.1%. Rebecca Bell-Metereau won in SBOE5 50.5% to 44.8%. Hays County now had a second District Court seat, won by a Democrat, and a new County Court at Law seat, also won by a Dem. The same Republican judge who was unopposed in 2016 was unopposed in 2020 as well. Dems now had challengers for both Sheriff and Tax Assessor, and while they both lost it was 51-49 in each. Dems had a challenger for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3, losing 52-48 after not contesting the position in 2016. The Dem Constable who won Precinct 2 by 110 votes in 2016 was re-elected by 2,500 votes in 2020. I’d say Hays is a bit like Harris County in 2012, where Dems are the majority but they do better at the top of the ticket, and aren’t quite able to knock out Republican countywide officeholders. There are definitely opportunities here going forward.

Brazoria County: This is more a story of stasis than progress. Trump carried Brazoria County by 29K votes in 2016, and he carried it by 28K votes in 2020. I’d rather go this direction than the other one, but we’re not getting anywhere at that rate. If we pull the curtain back a little farther, here’s the margin of victory in Brazoria County for the Republican Presidential candidate in each election since 2004: 34,758 (04), 29,035 (08), 36,441 (12), 29,591 (16), 28,159 (20). The long-term arc is fine, it’s just slow.

Republican statewides won the county with leads in the 30-34K range in 2016, and roughly the same in 2020. The percentages are closer, because that’s how ratios work, but the absolute difference in votes is more or less the same. That’s why I always aim to report both figures in posts like this, because you need both dimensions to understand what is really happening. For what it’s worth, Sri Kulkarni lost the CD22 portion of Brazoria by 6K votes after Mark Gibson lost it by 14K in 2016, but in the end that didn’t amount to much. I see Brazoria as being similar to Fort Bend twenty years ago, with a lot of work needed to move it in the same direction that Fort Bend has gone.

That’s all I’ve got for this exercise. There are some opportunities out there, but nothing can be taken for granted. Broadly speaking, the key is to run candidates in these downballot races – for one, there’s winnable contests out there, and for two, this is a key component to building a bench of future candidates. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as we have seen in Harris County, having a good county government is a big win on its own.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

Harris County reaches bike trail deal with CenterPoint

Nice.

CenterPoint rights of way

Biking between bayous in Harris County is closer to reality, now that local leaders and the monopoly that manages local power lines have inked a deal.

Harris County officials Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and CenterPoint Energy outlining the use of utility easements as hike and bike trails.

“Part of what we are doing is expanding the view of transportation in the county,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

Utility easements crisscross the Houston region, with many being ideal north-south connections to the existing trail systems along area bayous. Local cyclists said that is what makes them popular as possible new trails.

[…]

County officials are working on a comprehensive transportation plan, scheduled for release in February, Hidalgo said. With the CenterPoint agreement in place, part of that plan will include outlining the first easements where the county can make critical connections to area bayous.

“We have a lot of promise here,” the judge said, noting she is hopeful that with better trails to beautified bayous Harris County could become “the Venice of our area” by building on efforts by others, including the Houston Parks Board and local management districts.

Harris County’s arrangement with CenterPoint follows a similar agreement with Houston six years ago. Houston’s agreement became a template for changes in state law to make deals easier after the city and utility plodded through various legal issues. Hidalgo said the county also faced slow-going despite a streamlined process, as lawyers haggled over insurance specifics.

As a result of those various delays, opening some of the new trails in Houston and beyond along utility corridors remains a work-in-progress. Some in western Houston, notably the Westchase district and near Sims Bayou, are open and efforts continue to build more via local management districts or the nonprofit Houston Parks Board.

See here and here for some background, and here for a more recent update. The right-of-way that goes from Memorial Park down to Beltway 8, just inside 610 for the northern half of it, passes through some well-populated areas, and should be a huge boon for the residents nearby. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized that the county wasn’t already on board with this – as noted, the city of Houston struck this agreement with CenterPoint way back in 2014 – but I’m glad they’re on board now. Anything we can do to bring this to completion is worthwhile.

By the way, we’re still counting votes here in Texas

In case you were wondering.

Harris County is still counting ballots, too, just like counties all across Texas. We’re not focused on that right now, because Texas went to President Donald Trump on election night. But more than 100 people are working around the clock inside NRG Arena, Harris County’s election headquarters.

Isabel Longoria, election administrator, walked us through what’s happening.

“Quite frankly, the process of democracy right now is about tedious accuracy,” that is being double-checked by a ballot board of made up of both Republicans and Democrats, Longoria said.

“A lot of it is just on a computer. So for the mail ballots, for example, you get a person’s signature from their application and the signature from the ballot and you have a Democrat and a Republican just saying, yes, yes, question. Yes, yes, question. And anything that’s questioned goes to a specialized team,” that will reach out to a specific voter to verify that all information on the ballot is correct, Longoria said.

“I can say our staff is running on fumes. We’ve been working 24/7,” Longoria said.

The whole process is being monitored by about a dozen poll watchers.

[…]

The Texas Election Code requires all 254 Texas counties certify their election results no later than 14 days after the election, or in this case, by Nov. 17.

What will happen is that the official canvass will be presented to Commissioners Court, at their November 17 meeting, and they will certify it at that time. Military and overseas ballots were still being received as of Monday, which was the deadline for that. There are no races at the county, state, or federal level in Harris County that are close enough for a recount, so once all the ballots are tallied, that will be that. The point is, ballots are still being counted right here in Texas. See this Twitter thread by the County Clerk for more.

It’s a range, not a number

I don’t have full canvass data yet, but as I have said, I have Presidential data courtesy of Greg Wythe. Here are a couple of districts of interest:


Dist     Biden    Trump   Biden%   Trump%
=========================================
CD02   170,707  178,840    48.1%    50.0%
CD07   168,108  141,749    53.5%    45.1%

SBOE6  387,589  367,658    50.6%    48.0%

HD126   35,693   38,313    47.6%    51.1%
HD132   51,384   49,821    50.0%    48.5%
HD133   42,556   46,453    47.2%    51.5%
HD134   66,889   42,027    60.5%    38.0%
HD135   39,345   35,846    51.6%    47.0%
HD138   33,739   30,928    51.4%    47.2%

CC2    153,300  153,394    49.3%    49.3%
CC3    231,808  218,167    50.8%    47.8%
CC4    233,594  238,468    48.8%    49.8%

JP2     51,115   35,546    58.3%    40.5%
JP3     70,725   53,284    56.4%    42.5%
JP4    200,061  235,435    45.3%    53.3%
JP5    233,798  197,420    53.5%    45.2%

So Biden carried four districts in which the Democratic candidate lost – SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and County Commissioners Court Precinct 3. He also carried Constable/JP precinct 5, where the Democrats won the JP race but lost for Constable. He came close in CD02 and HD133, as well as some other places. Biden also lost Commissioners Court Precinct 2 by a whisker. What do we take away from this?

First, a reminder that none of these districts will be the same in 2022. All of them, including CC2, will be redrawn. CC2 was more Democratic in 2016 and 2018, but still pretty close in 2016. I’m pretty sure the Commissioners will have a long look at these numbers before they begin their decennial task.

I don’t want to go too deep into these numbers, partly because none of these districts (except the JP/Constable districts, most likely) will exist as is in 2022, but also because as the title implies, they’re only part of the story.

It is pretty much always the case that there’s a range of outcomes in each district. We saw Hillary Clinton greatly outperform Donald Trump in 2016 in basically every district. It was so pervasive, and in some cases so large, that I had a hard time taking it seriously. As you may recall, I was initially skeptical of CDs 07 and 32 as potential pickups because in other races, the Republicans carried those districts with some ease. Harris County Republican judicial candidates generally won CD07 by ten to twelve points in 2016, which meant that a lot of people who voted for Hillary Clinton also voted mostly if not entirely Republican down the ballot. Which number was real?

We know how that turned out. And in 2018, we saw a similar phenomenon with Beto O’Rourke, who quite famously carried 76 State Rep districts. He also outperformed every other Democrat on the ticket, some (like Justin Nelson and Mike Collier and Kim Olson) by a little, others (like Lupe Valdez) by a lot. Once again, what was reality? Here, I confess, I wasn’t nearly as skeptical as I was with the Clinton numbers. I – and I daresay, the entire Democratic establishment and more – saw the potential in those numbers, but we were only looking at the top end.

That doesn’t mean that number wasn’t real, any more than the Hillary Clinton number wasn’t real. But it did mean that it wasn’t the only indicator we had. I don’t have the full range of numbers yet from this election, but I think we can safely say that the Biden figures will exist in a range, the same way that the Clinton and Beto numbers did. If I had to guess, I’d say that Biden will be at the top of more Republican districts, like HD133, but maybe below the average in the Latino districts. I will of course report on that when I have that data.

So when we have new districts and we know what the partisan numbers are in them, how should we judge them? By the range, which may span a big enough distance to make each end look like something completely different. We don’t know what we’re going to get, and won’t know until we’re well into the thick of the election. It’s fine to believe in the top end, as long as we remember that’s not the only possible outcome. For more on the Harris County results, see Jasper Scherer on Twitter here and here.

Initial thoughts about the election

And now for some reactions and analysis…

– The polls were garbage. Oy vey. Not just here, though they were definitely off here, underestimating Trump and the Republicans after doing the same to Beto and the Dems in 2018. This time, after all that national soul-searching following the 2016 state-level misfires (the national polling was fairly accurate overall in 2016), we got this flaming mess. Not my problem to solve, but I wonder how much of this is the known issue of “differential response” writ large. We know that in some circumstances, like when there’s been a big news event, one candidate’s supporters, or members of one party in general, may be more or less likely to answer the phone and respond to a pollster. It may be that just as a matter of course now, Republicans are less likely to respond to polls, in a bigger way than previously thought, and that had a disproportionate effect on the numbers. I’m just guessing here, but if that’s the case then perhaps the web panel approach to polling needs to be used more often. For what it’s worth, the UT/Texas Tribune and UH Hobby School polls from October, both of which had Trump up 50-45, used web panels. Maybe that’s a fluke, maybe they had a better likely voter model going in, maybe they were onto something that the others weren’t, I don’t know. But they came the closest, so they get the glory. As for the rest, thanks for nothing.

– Along those same lines, pollsters who did deeper dive polls on Latino voters, such as Univision and Latino Decisions, really need to question their methods and figure out how they went so mind-bogglingly wrong. I get that what we had, at least to some extent, appears to have been lower-propensity Latino voters turning out at surprisingly high levels for Trump, but damn, this is your job. You need to be on top of that.

– The old adage about “Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state” can be safely buried for now. We had record-breaking turnout, over 11 million votes cast when we’d never surpassed nine million before, and yet Trump still won by six points while other statewide Republicans were winning by nine to eleven points. To be sure, that’s closer than 2016 was, but at this rate we’ll need to have thirty million people voting for Dems to catch up, and I feel confident saying that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. The lesson here is that there are low-propensity Republican voters, too, and they are capable of showing up when they are persuaded. We saw that happen in 2018, and we saw it again this year.

I admit I bought into the hype, and put too much faith into the idea that the non-voters would be more consistently Democratic than Republican. To be fair, I think that was the case in 2018, as Democrats made huge gains relative to past off years. It’s certainly been the case in Harris County that increases in voter registration have led to significant increases in Democratic votes – I’ll get to this in more detail later in the post, but this can be pretty easily quantified, and it’s why Dems have been dominating the countywide races with increasing ease. It’s where those gains came from that seems to have been a difference-maker.

I don’t want to sell short what was accomplished here. Joe Biden got over 1.3 million more votes than Hillary Clinton; Trump improved on his total by about 1.15 million. Chrysta Castaneda got 1.36 million more votes than Grady Yarbrough. The statewide judicial candidates got between 3,378,163 and 3,608,634 votes in 2016; in 2020, the range was 4,762,188 to 4,899,270 votes. If you want to be particularly gruesome, Biden got 3.3 million more votes than Wendy Davis did for Governor in 2014. Granted, Trump outdid Greg Abbott by just over 3 million votes, but still. A lot more people now have voted for a Democrat in Texas than at any other point in history. Even as we pick through the wreckage, that’s worth keeping in mind.

So how do we close that remaining gap of 700K to one million voters statewide? One, we should remember that off year elections are far more volatile from a turnout perspective, and we need to do everything we can to make these new folks habitual voters while we continue to register and recruit new voters. Two, having dynamic statewide candidates, who can learn the lessons of these past elections while applying them to the environment they’re in, would help. And three, maybe we need to give another look to the reviled old “persuasion” strategy, and see how we can do a better job of peeling away some of the other guy’s voters. Easier said than done, but then that’s why I’m a blogger and not a campaign professional.

– By the way, if anyone asks you who the current all-time vote leader in Texas is, the answer as of 2020 is Supreme Court Justice Jane Bland, who tipped the scales at 6,002,233 votes. No one else topped six million. She was helped by not having a third-party opponent in the race; the Libertarians in three other races got between 254L and 283K votes.

– I take no position on the question about whether the Republicans’ continued use of traditional door-to-door campaigning during the pandemic, which the Democrats largely eschewed out of a sense of safety for their campaign workers and as a statement of living their values, was a factor in this election. The academic research on various methods of increasing turnout and persuading swing voters is mixed, and does not suggest that one method (such as door-knocking) is clearly superior to others (such as phone-banking). Winning teams always point to their methods and strategies as the reason why they won and the other team lost. I’m not saying this couldn’t have made a difference, or that it didn’t make a difference. It may have, and I have no way to disprove the assertion. I’m just saying that it’s anecdotal data, and I consider it to be such.

– Also, too: I saw people again cursing Beto’s name for not running for Senate this year. All I can say is that anyone who thinks Beto would have done better than Biden is not thinking clearly. He probably would have exceeded MJ Hegar, but there’s a lot of room between that and winning. With all the money that was spent in Texas this year, I do not buy the argument that having Beto on the ticket would have moved the needle for Dems.

– Speaking of money, hoo boy. I hope this isn’t the end of our candidates being able to raise enough of it. We’re going to need plenty in 2022.

– How much of an effect did the lack of straight ticket voting have? Far as I can tell, very little. In Harris County, there were 1,633,557 votes cast in the Presidential race. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, in the two At Large HCDE races, there were 1,551,731 and 1,548,760 votes. In other words, about 95% of the people who voted in the Presidential race also voted in these two HCDE races.

Now, if you look at the various judicial races, you will see that Democratic judicial candidates generally got 60-80K fewer votes than Biden, while most Republican judicial candidates (though not all) exceeded Trump’s total. Some of that was just crossover voting, which we knew was happening, but some of it may have been a greater propensity by Dems to skip some number of downballot races. It’s hard to say how much is each. For what it’s worth, 12 out of 15 Dem judicial candidates (district and county courts) who had a Republican opponent had fewer votes than MJ Hegar, who had 848K to Biden’s 911K, while 8 out of those 15 Republican opponents did better than John Cornyn’s 717K votes; Trump got 699K, and all but two of those Republicans did better than that, while no one came close to Biden.

So did the absence of straight ticket voting mean more crossovers in general? I will remind you, as I have done before, there’s always a range of outcomes in the judicial races, so there has always been some amount of crossover voting, just usually not that much. Why did MJ Hegar get so many fewer votes than Joe Biden did? Some of it was more voting for third party candidates – there were 22K votes for the Libertarian and Green Presidential candidates, and 42K such votes in the Senate race – some of it was the 26K fewer votes cast in the Senate race (about 98.5% of all Presidential voters also voted for a Senate candidate), and some of it was the 18K people who voted for Cornyn but not Trump. Make of that what you will.

– While I’m thinking about it, let me update that range-of-results table I just linked to:


2004 
Rep 524K to 545K
Dem 460K to 482K

2008
Rep 526K to 564K
Dem 533K to 585K

2012
Rep 550K to 580K
Dem 555K to 581K

2016
Rep 580K to 621K
Dem 643K to 684K

2020
Rep 690K to 740K
Dem 812K to 865K

So congratulations to Republicans, who have boosted their base vote by almost 200K since 2004, while Dems have increased theirs by over 380K. Five points was as close as any Republican got.

– Despite their successful defense of their Congressional and legislative seats, Republicans still face some tricky decisions in redistricting. Look at it this way – in an election year that clearly wasn’t as good for Dems as 2018 was, they still managed to hold onto all but one of the seats they won that year. The same map that gave Republicans 95 House members was only good for 83 this year, and it wouldn’t have taken much to knock that number down by a half dozen or so. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button may have survived, but Dallas County is a problem for the GOP. Harris County has three safe Republican districts – HDs 127, 128, and 130 – four that are still pretty safe but have gotten a lot less so over the decade – HDs 126, 129, 133, and 150 – and two on the knife’s edge, HDs 132 and 138. That may have been hard to see from the vantage point of 2011, but the broad outlines of it were there, and as I have noted before, HDs 132 and 135 were already trending Dem in 2012, with both being a little bluer than they were in 2008 despite 2012 being a slightly lesser year for Dems overall. Who’s going to need protection, and whose seat may wind up on a target list a couple of cycles later because you didn’t understand the demographics correctly? In Congress, Dan Crenshaw won by a comfortable 14 points…in a district Ted Poe won by 24 points in 2016, and 32 points in 2012. How do you shore him up? Splitting pieces of Travis County into four Republican districts was a great idea, until it threatened the re-election of three of those Republicans. Who even knows how many Congressional seats we’ll have, given the chaotic nature of the Census?

Oh, and here in Harris County, I’m sure the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court will bolster Adrian Garcia in CC2, as the Republicans did for Jack Morman in 2010. The bigger question is do they go after their new colleague Tom Ramsey, or do they just not help him out and hope nature takes its course? That’ll be fun to watch.

I think that’s it for now. I’m sure more things will occur to me as we go. When I get a draft canvass, I’ll start doing the usual slicing and dicing.

Omnibus Election Day post

I was up really late last night, and there’s still a lot of votes to be counted. The SOS website was mostly trash, but a lot of county election sites took their sweet, sweet time even reporting any Election Day results. So here’s what I know right now, and I’ll have more tomorrow.

– The Presidential race is still unsettled as a lot of votes are to be counted. That may take a few days, but indications are decent for Biden at this point.

– Not in Texas, though. Biden was approaching five million votes as I write this, but he was trailing by six percent. The other Dems running statewide were losing by nine or ten. Still a fair number of Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump, and that made things redder downballot than you might have expected from the topline result. In a sense, 2020 was like 2018, in that the top Dem outperformed the others running statewide, but the gap at the top was wider.

– As of this writing, Dems appear to be on track to picking up one SBOE seat (SBOE5), reclaiming SD19, and likely sweeping the Appeals Court races that are anchored in Harris County; I have not checked the other Appeals Court races. Ann Johnson has knocked off Sarah Davis in HD134, and Gina Calanni is losing in HD132. Jon Rosenthal has a slim lead in HD135, while the two remaining Dallas County Republicans (Morgan Meyer in HD108 and Angie Chen Button in HD112) are hanging in, though Button’s lead is slimmer than Rosenthal’s. All other State House incumbents are winning, and all of the open seats are being held by the same party, which means that if all these races remain as they are…the composition of the Lege will be exactly as it is now, 83-67. Not what we were expecting, to say the least.

– Also not what we were expecting: As I write this, no Congressional seats appear poised to flip. Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred were re-elected, and Republicans have held onto all of their imperiled districts. Chalk that up to Trump and the rest of the statewide Rs doing better than the polls had suggested. One unexpectedly close race is in CD15, where Rep. Vicente Gonzalez was only leading by 6K votes as I write this. That said, none of the Election Day results from Hidalgo County were in for that race – all other counties except tiny Wilson were fully reported – so I would expect Gonzalez to win by a larger margin in the end.

(I should note that there’s a dispute in CD23, because of course there is.)

– Which leads to the uncomfortable fact that Trump did a lot better in the predominantly Latino counties in the Valley. I’m not going to get into that at this time – I guarantee, there are already a thousand thinkpieces about it – but the pollsters that showed him doing better and Biden lagging Clinton from 2016 were the winners of that argument. There will be many questions to be answered about that.

– Nothing terribly interesting in Harris County. Dems won all the countywide seats, but as noted lost in HD132 and HD138, and also lost in County Commissioners Court Precinct 3, so the Court remains 3-2 Dem. Note that Commissioners Court does its own redistricting, and after the 2010 election the Republican majority made CC2 a bit redder. I fully expect CC3 to shift in the Dem direction in the next map – it too was made redder after 2010 – but we’ll see how much of a difference it makes. Tom Ramsey has his work cut out for him. One change way downballot was Democrat Israel Garcia winning in the Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 race, knocking off longtime incumbent Russ Ridgway. Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap managed to hang on.

– With 683 of 797 voting centers reporting, there were 1,595,065 votes cast in the Presidential race. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, in the two HCDE Trustee At Large races, there were 1,516,025 and 1,513,125 votes cast, a dropoff of about five percent. I think that should settle the straight-ticket voting question, at least for now.

– Fort Bend County completed its transition to Democratic. All Democratic countywide candidates won, with Eric Fagan becoming the first Black Sheriff in that county. Congratulations to all the winners.

I’ll have much more to say soon, but this is where we are very early on Wednesday morning. Good night and try to remain calm.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

Another look at the County Commissioner race

It’s the most consequential local race on the ballot this year.

Michael Moore

Every four years since 1968, Harris County residents have been able to count on a Republican winning the Precinct 3 commissioner’s seat.

In that half century, a parade of Democrats have been trounced. Some years, the party did not even bother to field a candidate in the traditionally conservative district, which covers the western portion of the county. The past three Democratic presidential nominees carried Harris County, but no challenger in those cycles came within 16 points of Precinct 3 incumbent Steve Radack, who has held the post since 1989.

Of course, 2020 has been anything but normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal life. The Astros play in front of cardboard cutouts. And Democrats say they finally will capture Precinct 3, an open seat since Radack decided not to seek a ninth term.

They said the unpopularity of President Donald Trump in Harris County, against the backdrop of a mismanaged coronavirus response by state leaders and demographic shifts that favor Democrats will help the party’s nominee, political strategist Michael Moore, defeat his Republican opponent, former Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey.

[…]

Demographic shifts in Precinct 3 give Moore an advantage, Democratic consultant Keir Murray said. When Radack first was elected, the west Harris County district largely was white and rural. It since has grown rapidly and diversified, with an increase in non-white and college-educated residents. Both groups favor Democrats.

“Precinct 3 now is probably about half white, and that’s a massive change from 15 years ago,” Murray said. “Forty percent of the voters are probably people of color now.”

He said Harris County’s shift to reliably Democratic also affects Precinct 3. Recent elections bear that out.

In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the precinct by less than 1 point. The 2018 election, in a midterm year where Democrats traditionally struggle, U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 4 points.

A wave of Texas Republicans, including six members of Congress, have decided against seeking re-election in 2020. University of Houston political science Professor Jeronimo Cortina said that suggests the party privately is pessimistic about its prospects this year, especially after Democrats made significant inroads in suburban communities in 2018.

“From a political perspective, it’s easier to retire than lose an election,” Cortina said.

I skipped over a bunch of back-and-forth about who’s gonna win, because that doesn’t tell us anything. We know about the Moore poll that shows both him and Joe Biden leading by double digits. Tom Ramsey claims to have his own poll that shows otherwise, and maybe he does, but we have no numbers to go with it, so. The 2016 and 2018 results tell a good story for Dems (see the Moore poll link for links to earlier precinct analyses), and I don’t think the current environment does Republicans any favors. Oh, and there’s some dire warnings in the story from a Republican about how those dumb Dems can’t count on straight-ticket voting to carry them anymore. I think you know what I think of such arguments.

On a side note, as Harris County’s registered voter population has grown over the past few years, so has the RV population in Commissioners Court Precinct 3:


Year      County RVs      CC3 RVs
=================================
2008       1,892,656      507,839
2012       1,942,566      501,988
2016       2,182,980      568,512
2020       2,370,540      622,890

The dip in RV population from 2008 to 2012 is due to redistricting. CC3 as a share of the total number of RVs in Harris County has grown slightly, from 25.8% in 2012 to 26.3% as of July, 2020. The main takeaway from that is that this precinct really is a different place than it was as recently as eight years ago. The precinct has 25% more voters than it did in 2012, and that’s pretty significant. As a whole, Harris County has gotten more Democratic as its number of registered voters has increased. Seems like that’s the same phenomenon in CC3, it’s just a question of whether it’s enough.

Poll: Michael Moore claims large lead in Commissioners Court race

From Keir Murray:

There’s an image of the polling memo at the tweet, and you can see the whole thing here. To sum up:

– About one fifth of voters had no preference initially, not surprising since Commissioners Court is a lower-profile race. Moore led Republican Tom Ramsey 42-39 in the initial ask, likely a recapitulation of the partisan mix, with Moore having slightly higher name recognition, perhaps due to having to compete in the primary runoff.

– After a positive message about both candidates, Moore led 53-39. After a negative message about both candidates, Moore led 50-35. Joe Biden led 53-39 in the precinct.

– This is of course an internal campaign poll, and the sample appears to be likely voters, sample size 508, margin of error 4.4%.

– While the notion of “shy Trump voters” has been discredited multiple times by various investigators, I can believe that Trump might get the bulk of the non-responsive respondents here. To put it another way, I believe Moore is winning. I don’t believe he’s really winning by fourteen points. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s very much on the high end of my expected range of outcomes.

– For comparison, Beto carried CC3 by four points in 2018. The stronger statewide Dems in 2018 carried it by a bit less, while the weaker Dems were losing it by five to seven points. Hillary Clinton lost CC3 by less than a point in 2016, but she ran well ahead of the partisan baseline, as the average Dem judicial candidate was losing it by ten points. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez, the next two strongest Dems in 2016, were losing CC3 by eight or nine points. You want to talk suburban shift? This here is your suburban shift. Not too surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of CD07 overlapping CC3.

– The larger point here is that if Dems have improved on Beto’s performance in CC3, that’s another data point to suggest that Biden is doing better than Beto, and a lot better than Clinton, in 2020. You can figure out what that means at the statewide level.

Again, internal poll, insert all the caveats here. I give you data points because I care.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.