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Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

Of course the Fifth Circuit paused the straight ticket voting ruling

Water is wet, the sky is blue, the Fifth Circuit gives Ken Paxton whatever he asks.

Best mugshot ever

A federal appeals court on Monday put a temporary hold on a lower court’s ruling last week that reinstated the practice of straight-ticket voting, again casting into uncertainty whether Texas voters will have the option in the Nov. 3 election to vote for every candidate of a political party with one punch. A final ruling is expected after the court weighs the arguments more thoroughly.

[…]

Early voting is set to start Oct. 13, leaving election administrators little time to make major changes to voting procedures.

U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo wrote that ending straight-ticket voting would “cause important delays at polling places, place Texan voters at increased risk of catching a deadly virus, and discourage voters, particularly those most vulnerable to the disease or under significant economic pressure, from exercising their rights on election day.”

The three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a momentary pause on that decision Monday while it considers the case. It set quick deadlines for both sides to submit their arguments.

The case was brought by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and Democratic groups.

No matter the end result, the litigation has meant hours of chaos for scores of election administrators scrambling to ready their polling places for a Texas election unlike any other.

See here and here for the background. This is what I expected, so I’m not surprised, just appropriately cynical. The court has ordered a briefing to be held on Wednesday, so at least this should be resolved quickly one way or the other. You can see why I suggested we be deliberate about discussing this. Until we get a final ruling for this election, please pour one out for the state’s elections administrators, as they chug Maalox and chain smoke while the courts meddle with their perfectly nice election. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

Paxton appeals stright ticket voting ruling

Letting no moss grow.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office filed an appeal and motion to stay Saturday following a federal judge’s order to reinstate straight ticket voting ahead of the November general election.

Lawyers representing the Texas Secretary of State argued that U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo erred when she ruled Friday that the elimination of straight ticket voting this year would illegally impede the ability of Texas residents to vote by causing long lines at the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Attorney General’s office also argued the ruling came too late for elections officials to properly alter ballots.

“Eighteen days before in-person voting begins is insufficient time for election administrators in 254 counties and their vendors to meticulously re-program, re-proof, and re-test thousands of different ballot styles,” state officials wrote in their motion to stay.

[…]

Some county elections officials have issued warnings that Marmolejo’s ruling came too late in the planning process. Marmolejo found that only in-person ballots must have a straight-ticket voting option.

It is not immediately clear how quickly the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will act or when Marmolejo might rule on the motion to stay.

See here for the background. This was of course completely expected, and if the Fifth Circuit doesn’t break records issuing a stay of Judge Marmolejo’s order I’ll be shocked, but here we are for now. Gotta admit, Paxton complaining about the timing after his official support of reinstating Green Party candidates within a week of the supposed deadline for printing absentee ballots is a nice touch. You have to respect the dedication to his craft.

I have to admit, I’m a bit hesitant to even talk about this litigation. I don’t want to start telling people “Hey, it turns out you can vote a straight party ticket like you did before”, only to have to retract that following the inevitable Fifth Circuit action and tell people again that they need to vote in each race. I’d just like to know what the rules are so we can prepare for them. Allowing straight ticket voting again, even at this late hour, isn’t confusing, it’s what people are used to. Not having it isn’t great, but we have a message for that. Taking it away, then giving it back, then taking it away again, that’s what would suck. So for now, don’t go sharing this stuff all over social media. Wait till we know what’s for real first.

The people responded to the call for poll workers

In Harris County, bigtime.

Muhammed Nasrullah was ready to call it quits. After working as an election judge in every Harris County contest since 2004, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged the 67-year-old retired mechanical engineer from signing up again.

He is in a high-risk age group, and he knew friends who had contracted the virus. Then he began to read news stories about a nationwide shortage of poll workers during the pandemic. And he was worried that delays in the U.S. Postal Service have undermined the public’s trust in mail ballots.

In such a consequential election Nov. 3, with record turnout expected in Harris County, Nasrullah decided he would serve again.

“I convinced myself that the election is so important that I’m willing to take the risk,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing my civic duty, and it’s a good feeling.”

He is one of 11,000 poll workers Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins hopes to recruit this year, twice as many as in 2016. Hollins’ ambitious $27.2 million election plan includes nearly tripling the number of early voting sites and an 8 percent increase in poll locations on Election Day. He needs an army of poll workers to staff them.

The clerk’s office in August launched an aggressive social media campaign to recruit workers, and Hollins recorded a commercial.

By this week, 29,000 applications had arrived.

Rachelle Obakozuwa, polling locations and recruitment manager for the clerk’s office, attributed part of the increased interest to many residents believing the November presidential election is especially important.

“And for another, people really need work because of COVID and a lot of layoffs,” Obakozuwa said. “We’re seeing both equally.”

Pay was also a factor – poll workers are receiving $17 per hour for their work, nearly double the $9 per hour they got in 2016. Decent pay for meaningful work, who knew that would be attractive to so many? They – and we – can thank Diane Trautman for upping their pay.

Fuentes is one of more than 100 student clerks Harris County recruited from Houston-area schools. As they often are more tech-savvy than older workers, Obakozuwa said one of the students’ tasks will be to update the clerk’s wait time app for polling places.

That task will be crucial to ensuring a smooth experience for residents, as the clerk’s office estimates each voter will spend far longer in the booth this year because of the elimination of straight-ticket voting. The hours-long lines to vote at some locations in the March primary election were partly blamed on a failure of poll workers to update the app, leading voters to visit sites that already were crowded.

Under the Texas Election Code, counties do not hire most poll workers directly. Rather, county clerks recruit and train poll workers, who are selected by the Democratic and Republican election judges at each polling site.

The loss of straight ticket voting may turn out not to be a concern, but until the Fifth Circuit speaks, it’s too soon to say. Be that as it may, my first thought when I saw this story was “Gosh, I sure hope other counties are this successful at getting poll workers”. But other counties may not be paying as well, or may not be able to pay as well. That’s an inequity situation if so, because it shouldn’t be the case that voting is easier and more accessible in one place due to financial constraints. This is another thing that could be addressed by the Legislature, by mandating a minimum level of pay and a minimum number of poll workers per location and locations per county, and allocating the money to cover costs above a certain level for each county so they can comply. I’m being overly simplistic here, but the point I’m making is that the state could be doing what Harris County has done this year, which is spend the money necessary to improve access to voting. I think we all know what will be required for that to happen. I’m just saying it’s something we can work to make happen.

October Census deadline restored

Good news, though as with everything we can’t be sure just yet that it’s for real.

A federal judge in California late Thursday blocked the Trump administration from stopping the 2020 Census count next week, saying it should continue until Oct. 31, the date the Census Bureau had planned on before the administration abruptly shortened the count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the National Urban League — a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals — and other groups. Koh had, earlier this month, issued a temporary restraining order to keep the count underway. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a hearing Tuesday, Koh had expressed irritation with Justice Department lawyers for missing a deadline she had set for them to produce internal documents connected to the case.

She referred repeatedly to documents finally released over the weekend and Monday in which career bureau officials said the data could not be properly collected and delivered to the president on the government’s new timeline.

See here and here for the background. The Chron lays out what’s at stake locally.

Natalia Cornelio, legal affairs director for [County Commissioner Rodney] Ellis, said at the point Trump yanked back the deadline in early August, only 63 percent of households nationwide and 54 percent in Houston had responded to the census.

Despite those numbers, on Aug. 3, the census director abruptly announced what the court is calling the “re-plan,” which shortened the timeline for households to respond by Sept. 30.

Cornelio said the accuracy of the census count is critical to Harris County’s future.

“Its outcome determines political representation and billions of dollars of funding for healthcare, education, disaster relief, and housing,” she said.

Right now, Harris County is looking at an estimated undercount of 600,000 households, based on data from Civis Analytics, the company the county has partnered with to track its census outreach, she said.

One area likely to suffer from an undercount is the southern portion of the county, a pie-slice-shaped region extending from downtown Houston to Bellaire to League City, according to Steven Romalewski, who maps census data for the Center for Urban Research at CUNY. In that area, 11 percent of the door-knocking has yet to be completed, a feat that would likely would have been impossible with less than a week to spare to the Sept. 30 deadline, he said.

In parts of Fort Bend and Galveston counties, nearly 18 percent of the door-knocking needs to be finished. And in Montgomery County 12 percent of homes have yet to be documented.

Romalewski said the ruling could have a major impact on areas with a relatively low “completion” rate for the door-knocking operation that’s meant to visit every household that has not responded. With more time to complete the process, census enumerators can attempt to visit households more than once and will be likelier to talk with someone in-person or determine that a unit is vacant. The fallback, which census officials consider less accurate, is to to count residents through administrative records.

I have a hard time understanding why any decent person would think this was a good state of affairs. At least we have a chance now to try and get this close to correct. That’s pending the likely appeal to SCOTUS, and who knows what they may do at this point. But at least for now, there’s a chance.

Straight ticket voting reinstated (for now)

That was unexpected.

Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.

In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”

Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”

She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.

“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”

See here and here for the background. This was a Democracy Docket case, and so they have a copy of the original complaint and the judge’s order. The complaint wasn’t any different the second time around, but the set of plaintiffs was. Beyond that, the main difference was the extent of the pandemic since the original case was dismissed in late June. The judge cites how much worse the spread of the virus has gotten, as well as the difficulties counties had running the primary runoffs in July – fewer voting locations, harder time getting poll workers – as justification for reversing her original dismissal. She also noted the extra time it takes to vote Texas’ long ballots; I’m guessing this opinion was written a few days ago, because that recent Harris County study was not cited.

I presume this will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit before the weekend is out, and I expect they will put a stay on the order pending whatever review they’re going to do. Or maybe not, I don’t know, we’re getting awfully close to “we really need to finalize the ballot and configure the voting machines” time. The judge also noted in the ruling that it would be less confusing to the voters to restore straight ticket voting at this late time than to not have it, since we have not had such an election yet. I think the real danger of confusion is having everyone talk about this ruling for a few days and then have it blocked by the appeals court, but that’s just me. For now, we’ll be voting like it’s 2018 again. For now. The Chron has more.

Trib overview of the Senate race

It really comes down to the top of the ticket. There’s no getting around it.

MJ Hegar

Even before a pandemic struck, protests over racial justice took to the streets and a vacancy opened on the U.S. Supreme Court, this year’s U.S. Senate race was poised to be different from the last one in Texas.

John Cornyn is not as polarizing as Ted Cruz, the thinking went, and MJ Hegar is no Beto O’Rourke.

Add in a wave of news and other high-profile 2020 contests, and Texas voters are getting a much lower-octane race, a far cry from Cruz’s battle royale against O’Rourke and all its theatrics.

But that does not mean this year’s race is lacking in contrast.

As he embarks on the final several weeks of his quest for a fourth term, Cornyn is pitching himself as a “steady hand on the wheel” who has the stature to guide Texas through a turbulent time. Hegar, meanwhile, is happily running to the contrary — as a disruptive change agent who can usher in a new era of federal representation for a changing Texas.

While Hegar’s pitch is broadly similar to what O’Rourke’s was, Cornyn is taking a notably different path than Cruz, a student of base-first politics who believed what he needed most in 2018 was maximum conservative turnout. Instead, Cornyn is running for reelection with more appeals to the political center, often inviting questions — most vocally from Hegar — about whether his rhetoric matches his record.

But in any case, it is a dynamic destined to shape the final several weeks of the top statewide race after the presidential contest.

[…]

At the end of the day, Cornyn’s fate may be tied to Trump more than anyone else come November. Asked about his biggest challenge this November, Cornyn brought up the massive turnout that is expected, largely driven by the polarizing president, and how different it will be from when he was last on the ballot. A total of 4.6 million people participated in the 2014 Senate election, and Cornyn said he likely will have to garner more votes than that alone this fall to win a fourth term.

With Trump dominating the political landscape across the country, Cornyn said he does not “just want to kind of surf the waves of national news cycles” and wants to make a case for himself independent of Trump. The president gave Cornyn an early reelection endorsement, helping to ensure a noncompetitive primary.

Cornyn occasionally offers gentle dissent with the president but has not emphatically broken with him on any major issue in recent memory. When it comes to the November election, he said he would like Trump to talk more about his accomplishments, namely on the economy — and that he has expressed as much to the president.

“To me the real question in this election is: Who do you think is best suited to help rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic?” Cornyn said. “Is it Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Or is it Donald Trump and Mike Pence? And for me, it’s not even close.”

Beyond policy, though, Hegar has sought to make the race almost as much about character, pitching herself as a stronger avatar of Texas toughness.

In ads, Hegar talks up her military heroism and rides her motorcycle, and on the stump, she has denounced Cornyn as a “spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser.” She defended the approach in the interview, saying it is “important people understand his level of cowardice because I’ve been to D.C.” — to lobby for women in combat — and she has seen firsthand what it takes to overcome adversity there.

I agree with John Cornyn, it will take more than 4.6 million votes to win in November. That’s actually not saying much – even Wayne Christian topped 4.6 million in 2016, with the statewide judicial candidates all exceeding 4.7 million and in some cases 4.8 million. Five million seems like the bare minimum to win, and let’s be honest, that is a bigger leap for Dems to make, since Beto was the first Dem ever to top four million. To that extent, the Presidential race almost certainly helps Dems like Hegar more than it does Republicans like Cornyn. It’s still a big gap to close. The capacity is there, and Dems took a huge leap forward in 2018, but let’s keep the magnitude of the task in mind.

How much this race will be distinguished from the Presidential race is unclear. This is literally the first race on the ballot after the Presidential race, so any concerns about the lack of straight ticket voting should be minimal. I’ve seen maybe one ad for each candidate so far – Lacey Hull and Lizzie Fletcher, neither of whom are on my ballot, have been a much more frequent presence on my teevee. The Beto/Cruz race in 2018 was the top of that ticket, both literally and practically, since the Governor’s race was a much quieter affair. Some people may decide to vote in this race, in particular to split a ticket in this race, based on the campaigns, but my guess is that will be minimal. If Joe Biden wins Texas, MJ Hegar has an excellent chance of beating John Cornyn; if Donald Trump wins Texas, Cornyn will almost certainly get re-elected. I think a Biden/Cornyn combination is slightly more likely than a Trump/Hegar parlay, but how probable either scenario is I have no idea. The main message here is what it’s always been: Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. It’s as simple as that.

And the PAC12 flip flops, too

Everyone’s playing football again.

The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season beginning Nov. 6, the league announced Thursday.

The decision, voted on by the Pac-12’s CEO group on Thursday, represents an official reversal after the conference announced in early August it would postpone all sports until at least Jan. 1, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been the result of what we said back in August — that we’d follow the science, follow the data, follow the advice from our medical experts,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, “and that we know how badly our student-athletes want to compete, as student-athletes for the Pac-12, but that we would only do so when we felt that we could do so safely.”

In a release, the Pac-12 said men’s and women’s basketball can begin Nov. 25 while other winter sports can begin in line with their respective NCAA seasons. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball, will continue to plan for a spring season.

[…]

In August, the Pac-12’s CEO group, which includes a president or chancellor from each university, voted unanimously to postpone the season. The explanation for the postponement included the need for daily rapid turnaround tests for COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a belief that would be possible during the fall.

However, that changed less than a month later when the conference reached an agreement with a company to provide daily tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are expected to be operational in early October.

Along with daily antigen testing, athletes will take at least one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test per week.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Pac-12 CEO group chair and Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. “Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety.”

The conference faced additional pressure after the ACC, Big 12 and SEC remained set on playing in the fall. There was a common belief in the Pac-12, sources said, that after the Big Ten postponed its season, the other Power 5 conferences would eventually do the same. When that didn’t happen and the Big Ten faced significant pressure to change course, and eventually did, the Pac-12 was left to find a way not to be the only Power 5 conference idle in the fall.

After the Big Ten’s announcement last week, Scott quickly pointed to governmental restrictions in California and Oregon that prevented the six Pac-12 schools in those states from practicing. By the end of the day, governors from both states publicly indicated that nothing at the state level would prevent the Pac-12 season from taking place.

See here for the background, and here for the PAC 12’s statement. No one will be allowed at on campus games until at least January. It does indeed seem inevitable that once the Big Ten came back, the PAC 12 would follow. Now even some non-Power Five conferences are also returning, as the Mountain West Conference made a similar announcement. Just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’ll end up playing all the games they intend to play – just ask the University of Houston, which has had four games against four different opponents get cancelled for COVID reasons. And if you think all this is weird and perhaps ill-advised, just wait till basketball starts.

UPDATE: And the MAC is back, too, meaning that all FBS conferences will be playing some form of a football schedule this fall.

Hotze and crew appeal to SCOTX to stop the extra week of early voting

Here we go again.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a lawsuit over his extension of early voting for the November election from prominent members of his own party — including state party Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and members of the Texas Legislature.

In July, Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, Abbott’s intra-party critics say the move defied election law that requires early voting to start on the 17th day before the election.

It is the latest legal challenge to Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded aggressively in dealing with the pandemic.

“Governor Abbott seems to have forgotten that the Texas Constitution is not a document that he consults at his convenience,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is an uninterrupted charter of governmental structure that limits the Governor Abbott’s ability to act as a king.”

The plaintiffs argue Abbott needs to consult the Legislature before making such decisions and that “if ever a special session was justified, now is the time.”

One of the plaintiffs is Steve Hotze, the Houston conservative activist who has launched several lawsuits against Abbott’s coronavirus response that has seen minimal success so far. But in the latest lawsuit, he is joined by not only West and Miller, but also three state senators and four state representatives, as well as the chairman of the Harris County party, Keith Nielsen, and the Republican National Committeeman from Texas, Robin Armstrong.

West, who took over the state party this summer, has openly expressed disagreement with aspects of Abbott’s coronavirus handling, including his statewide mask mandate and the early voting extension. West seemed to telegraph the lawsuit Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would be partnering with Hotze to make election integrity a “top priority.” West said in the same statement that he opposes the “extension of early voting through the decree of a single executive instead of through the legislative process.”

[…]

In addition to making the early voting period longer for the November election, Abbott gave voters more time to turn in their mail-in ballots in person if they choose to do so. Usually those voters are permitted to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s expanded that option to the entire early voting period.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday additionally seeks to stop the extended period for submitting mail ballots in person, also calling the move inconsistent with the election code.

Before we go on, I should note that what was filed was not a lawsuit but a writ of mandamus. Hotze and a smaller crew of jackals had already filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court about a month ago. I presume this writ was filed because they weren’t going to get a ruling in time, and everything is an emergency as far as Hotze is concerned.

The Chron adds some detail.

In the 40-page petition filed Wednesday, the Republicans wrote that the extension was unlawful because the Texas Election Code defines the early voting periods as “the 17th day before election day … through the fourth day before election day,” and the time for in-person submission of mail-in ballots as “only while the polls are open on election day.” The petition seeks to force Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to stick to the timelines in the law.

Hotze has filed a number of lawsuits aimed at Abbott’s COVID-19 emergency orders; in the early voting suit, he again alleges that Abbott does not have the authority, even during a disaster, to suspend laws through executive order. Instead, he says, Abbott should have convened the Legislature.

“If ever a special session was justified, now is the time,” the petition states. “Abbott’s Executive Orders are unprecedented and have had life and death implications, destroyed small businesses and family’s livelihoods, have had a crippling effect on every single community, and now have the ability to impact local, state and national elections. As long as this Court allows it to occur, one person will continue to unilaterally make these decisions under the guise of an unconstitutional statute.”

The lawmakers involved in the suit are state Sens. Charles Perry, Donna Campbell and Pat Fallon and state Reps. Bill Zedler, Cecil Bell, Jr., Steve Toth and Dan Flynn. Additional relators include former state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Rick Green and Molly White; Harris County Republican Party Chair Keith Nielson; and several other candidates and Republican group leaders.

This story notes the earlier lawsuit. Of interest is the larger group of legislators that have joined in, which distinguishes this action from earlier Hotze/Woodfill joints. Perhaps the election of Allen West, who is as bananas as Hotze, has lent an imprimatur of establishment approval to this kind of rogue action. That said, this is the Hotze clown car we’re talking about, so of course there’s some unintentional comedy involved:

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

Anyway. You know my opinion on all this – there are some legitimate questions buried under the mountains of palaver, but they are being asked by the worst possible people. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the very nature of our biennial legislature, which is not paid as an occupation but as a temp gig, makes this claim about calling special sessions impossible. It’s just not something that the system is designed to accommodate. My guess is that SCOTX will give this the same reception as they’ve given all of Hotze’s other writs and motions during the COVID times, but you just never know. And I can’t wait to see how Ken Paxton responds to this.

On a side note, this comes as Steve Toth, yet another froth-at-the-mouth type, officially announced that he is unfriending Abbott, which by itself isn’t that interesting but lends some fuel to the speculation that Abbott is going to get a challenger from the far wingnut right in 2022. All I can say to that is that we damn well better have a good candidate ready and waiting for whoever survives that mud fight.

Bar owners still mad at Abbott

Can’t blame them, but the situation is complicated.

As Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his latest reopening plan this week, bar owner Greg Barrineau watched in disbelief. Abbott, who announced that Texas restaurants could expand dine-in service to 75% capacity, said bars must remain closed.

“Some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said of reopening, “and we will continue to work with them on that process.”

But Barrineau, who has laid off his 12 staff members and suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses at Drink Texas, a bar with locations in San Antonio and Boerne, said that assertion of collaboration is “insanity — he doesn’t care about small businesses.”

Michael Klein, the head of Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, which represents thousands of bars, said that Abbott’s statement about working together was “incorrect,” carefully choosing his words. The TBNA laid out a six-point plan to reopen in August, but Klein said the governor, whom he referred to strictly as “anti-business Abbott,” has not responded to the plan.

“We’ve never heard back from them,” Klein said. “We believe that he is disingenuous.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

While restaurant owners applauded Abbott’s move to allow them to increase operations, Klein said Thursday’s ruling was “completely unacceptable” for many bars and other facilities where alcohol sales make up more than half of the revenue. It could leave 30% of Texas bars and 39% of distilleries permanently closed within six months, industry leaders said.

[…]

Spread from conventional bars and nightclubs has been widely documented throughout the U.S., and infectious disease experts caution going inside establishments that don’t follow social distancing protocols.

Kristin Mondy, chief of the infectious disease division in the University of Texas at Austin’s medical school, said there is increased risk in spreading the virus if strangers mingle in a tight, closed space, especially as drinking could cause bar customers to loosen their inhibitions.

Klein said the industry’s plan would reduce those issues by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements.

Some of the requirements in TBNA’s plan include ensuring all patrons are seated at their own tables, barring dance floors and mingling among groups, requiring face masks for all servers and customers when not at their tables, and conducting temperature checks upon entry. Mondy said these procedures could help as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced.

[…]

Cord Switzer, who has helped run Fredericksburg Winery for almost 25 years with his family, said he has been able to technically and legally become a food server — but no one that comes is actually eating the food. That’s not why they go to a winery, he said.

“It makes no sense to me,” Switzer said. “We have never been interested in being in the food service business. We have no intent of doing that in the future, but it was our only choice.”

Switzer started wine tastings on Saturday for the first time in two months and hopes to begin recouping his losses after making 30% of last year’s revenue. But he doesn’t understand the governor’s categorization, and industry advocates share Switzer’s confusion.

“Texas winery owners continue to be perplexed by Governor Abbott’s steadfast refusal to recognize that the lion’s share of Texas alcohol manufacturer’s tasting rooms have little, if anything, in common with bars and nightclubs,” said Patrick Whitehead, the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, in an email. “Governor Abbott’s arbitrary, and frankly unfair, act of lumping our tasting rooms into the category of bars is like a surgeon operating with a chainsaw rather [than] a scalpel.”

Switzer’s money troubles are not unique; nearly half of distilleries surveyed by the Texas Whiskey Association have experienced revenue losses greater than 60%. Spence Whelan, the head of the association, which represents distilleries across Texas, said continued restrictions could be disastrous for the industry, which normally relies on a big fourth quarter in holiday sales to stay afloat. This fall, with little or no visitors, that could be wiped out. Under Texas law, whiskey distilleries cannot ship or deliver whiskey directly to customers, nor can they sell more than two bottles of whiskey per person.

At the very least, Whelan said, those rules should be relaxed. Many places don’t want to open yet anyway, and there are other ways to bring in money. He said the industry has sent more than 15,000 letters to the governor’s office asking to waive those restrictions and has received no response.

Let’s acknowledge that bars are a high-risk environment for COVID-19, and the reopening of bars in May was a significant contributor to the subsequent outbreaks that swept the state in June and July. We should also acknowledge that there’s evidence that the reopening of restaurants, even at lower capacities, is also a risk factor in spreading COVID-19. The bar owners’ complaint – and wineries’, and distilleries’, and craft breweries’ – is that Abbott has been particularly rigid about how these risks are categorized, and has been unresponsive to any input that would allow these entities to operate in a lower-risk fashion.

I have a lot of sympathy for these complaints. Some bars have been able to reopen by creative interpretation of the 51% rule, by incorporating to-go service, and by a recent rule change that lets them have food trucks on their premises. But this doesn’t work for every bar, it imposes extra costs on them, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of their business. The only good thing that may come out of it is the expanded allowance for to-go service, and maybe if we’re very lucky a broader rethinking of our antiquated regulatory scheme for alcohol. I don’t know how effective the risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed by the various industry groups would be, but we could study them and try the ones that comply with known best practices. We could surely let the places that have ample outdoor space like wineries and craft breweries with beer gardens take advantage of those spaces (to some extent we already are permitting this), and we could make allowances for those that have large and well-ventilated indoor spaces where social distancing would work. And, you know, Abbott and Dan Patrick could put a little pressure on the two Republican Senators to support a relief bill in Congress that included funds for bars and other places that rely heavily on alcohol sales (such as music halls) that just can’t be allowed to reopen right now. Abbott has done none of this, and as noted in the story has been repeatedly unwilling to engage in any discussion about it.

So this is both a legitimate set of concerns by members of a significant sector of the Texas economy, and a real opportunity for Democrats going forward. Dems don’t need to pander or reverse course on their properly-held principles about minimizing COVID risk. They just need to be willing to consider the various risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed, and to continue to push for a response from Congress that truly addresses the broad economic pain that much of the country is still experiencing. Good policy is so often good politics, and the opportunity to do both here is enormous.

Still code red

We’ll turn it down a notch when the data says we should.

The counts of coronavirus patients in local hospitals have been falling for two months. Restaurant patios are packed. Houston’s symphony and pro soccer teams are resuming at limited capacity. The state is relaxing restrictions on many businesses next week.

So, why is Harris County still at its highest threat level, urging residents to stay home?

Simple, County Judge Lina Hidalgo says: The metrics her office compiled in forming the threat level system in June have not all been met.

Hospitalization trends met the county’s goals weeks ago. A change to the way new cases were tallied cleared that hurdle on Monday, as did the last hospital target — COVID-19 patients making up less than 15 percent of intensive care beds. The lone barrier to downgrading from red (“stay home”) to orange (“minimize ALL contacts”) is now the county’s test positivity rate, which, at 7.7 percent, exceeds the 5 percent target.

Hidalgo said she understands the public is tired of vigilance, but she loses no sleep over being a holdout.

“What I’m trying to do is have at least one level of government that’s offering research and numbers-based information and consistently refuses to be swayed by political one-liners,” she said. “That continues to be my commitment. When you have folks pretending we can just go back to normal, it puts the community at risk and it gives people false hope.”

[…]

Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president at Baylor College of Medicine, called the county’s 5 percent target reasonable and widely used, but said, broadly, COVID-19 indicators suggest this is an appropriate time to slowly reopen.

Setting goals and then ditching them when the public grows tired of the restrictions they support would be a mistake, McDeavitt said. When Abbott reopened the state in May, Texas had not hit the benchmarks his own advisors had set.

“On the other hand,” McDeavitt added, “if you set metrics and slavishly wait until every single one of those numbers is where it needs to be, that is also problematic. You need to look at the big picture — and I know from talking to the county that’s what they do. Everybody is trying to find the right balance.”

Hey, if Greg Abbott isn’t going to pay attention to his own metrics, someone has to. To be fair, other counties have lowered their threat levels, and Dr. McDeavitt’s point about where the metrics are is well-taken. Positivity rate is a key figure, but it’s also affected by the number of tests that are given, which in turn is affected by test availability. It may be that we need to have a discussion about this, and it may be that we need to reassess what our risks are these days. But still, the fact that Judge Hidalgo is consistent about the metrics we have set for Harris County is a good thing.

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

For the first Houston-area school districts to resume in-person classes, the early results for COVID-19 on campus are in: so far, mostly so good.

Eight districts that brought children back to schools in August are reporting sporadic known cases of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but they are avoiding the kind of outbreaks that stoked the most fear headed into the new school year.

The preliminary data offer signs of hope that many schools, under the right conditions, can hold face-to-face instruction and avoid widespread transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus within a campus.

With three to four weeks in the books, those districts reported about 80 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the roughly 112,000 students and 29,000 staff members regularly traveling to campuses. While the source of those infections is not known, none of the eight districts are reporting several active cases at a single campus.

Most districts consider a case active if an individual spent time on district premises, later tested positive for COVID-19 and remains in recovery.

[…]

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said COVID-19 spread among students and staff will become more clear in the next few weeks, though rapid outbreaks have occurred in settings with large gatherings of children.

“Particularly in high school and maybe middle school, I think you’d anticipate a relatively quick signal and fast outbreak,” Chang said. “Not too many districts have had a lot of face-to-face students for that long yet. It might be a little early, especially if we have asymptomatic kids.”

The possibility of a school-based outbreak also could increase as more districts resume in-person classes.

Several districts that serve large numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income families — who are testing positive for COVID-19 and dying from the disease at higher rates than wealthier and white families — are just starting face-to-face classes or returning to campuses in the coming weeks. Houston ISD, the region’s largest school district, is tentatively scheduled to offer in-person classes beginning Oct. 19.

Still, the lack of immediate outbreaks suggests the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing could be helping to limit the spread on campuses.

“I firmly believe we can open up schools pretty safely,” said Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Is it going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be cases? Sure. But I think the impact on the community can be minimal if we do it safely.”

I sure hope so. The potential for schools to be a huge vector for COVID spread is real, and it will only take one or two outbreaks to have a big effect. My own kids are going to be back on campus in a couple of weeks, so I’m keeping a very close eye on this. The optimistic take on this is that it may finally convince some mask skeptics that wearing the damn things really does matter. The pessimistic view is more gruesome than I care to write down. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing now is what we will continue to get.

Voter registration during a pandemic is hard

Especially when online voter registration is not an option.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In the first seven months of 2020, new registrations in Texas were down nearly 24% compared with that same time frame in 2016, according to numbers from the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. In April alone, registrations dropped 70%. Numbers have climbed back up over the summer, but that rebound might not be enough to get the state back to where it could have been, said David Becker, the center’s director.

“We’re not seeing an increase in voter registration activity that compensates for the decrease that we’ve seen in previous months,” he said. “In Texas, there’s still a pretty big overall deficit for the year in terms of new voter registration activity.”

The effects are being felt by both parties. Democrats and Republicans told The Texas Tribune that they’re struggling with voter registration in the era of COVID-19.

On the Republican side, the super PAC Engage Texas is emblematic of the challenge. By February, a month before the pandemic hit Texas, it had raised nearly $12 million and had hired nearly 300 staff members with the goal of registering hundreds of thousands of new likely Republican voters before the 2020 elections. The political action committee had shut down by May, citing challenges created by the coronavirus.

“It’s more difficult to register voters face to face and by traditional voter registration methods like door-knocking during the pandemic,” said Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Texas who said the party was not allowed to coordinate with Engage Texas.

However, Twombly said, the party has found “multiple alternative methods that have proven to be very successful at registering voters during the pandemic.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have long contended that Texas isn’t a red state, but a nonvoting state — one they could flip if they registered and energized more voters. Party leaders entered the 2020 cycle determined to register large amounts of young people and people of color who are opposed to the Trump administration. Groups like Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People were gearing up for a massive blitz, only to find they can’t go door to door. Now many are hosting virtual phone banks with the hopes of registering hundreds of thousands of voters.

Voting rights groups are experiencing similar challenges. Since its founding in 2012, Mi Familia Vota’s Texas chapter registered over 50,000 new voters, a number the group thought would have gone up in 2020. But the group is anticipating seeing a 20% decrease in its final voter registration numbers since 2018, said Angelica Razo, the Texas state director for the group.

Many of the potential missed registrants, Razo said, are in the state’s growing Latino population, which has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and lower-income residents who don’t own printers and are therefore unable to print off voter registration forms.

“Latinos have been disenfranchised, and there has not been a lot of investment in Latino electoral participation,” Razo said. “But the energy is there, and people are fired up. Our people don’t want to get stuck on the sidelines for this election. Mi Familia Vota is working to create systems and resources hubs that make this process as accessible as possible.”

Lately, there have been some signs of a possible, albeit small, rebound. Groups like the League of Women Voters of Texas and MOVE say they saw registration bumps over the summer; both groups attributed the change, at least in part, to Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Roughly 16,500 people registered to vote with MOVE between June and August, Bonner said; Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, also reported gains since the spring, though she was unable to provide exact figures.

[…]

Still, many groups are working to reach potential voters online. Chimene pointed to Register2Vote.org, a website that has been accessible to people since March 2018, which walks people through filling out the voter registration application online and then sends it to them in the mail filled out with the person’s information and a stamped return envelope.

Jeremy Smith, the executive director of Register2Vote, said it registered 23,700 Texans from March to May and another 37,500 from June to July. Some experts say they think the latest online tools will likely have the biggest impact on college students and people younger than 25.

The Texas Democratic Party is doing something similar. In April, it launched registertexas.org, which also sends voters pre-filled voter cards with return envelopes. It also formed a “voter expansion team” in January with the goal of “expanding the electorate,” said Luke Warford, the director of voter expansion. On Sept. 7, the party said it reached out to 1.3 million unregistered Texans in the week prior, though it’s unclear how many followed through and registered.

I find it interesting that while the one Republican-backed group that was trying to register voters gave up in May, while all of the Democratic and non-partisan groups have chugged along and found innovative solutions like the pre-filled-in applications that just need to be signed and stuffed in the mail. You tell me what that means about the relative levels of dedication. I said before that it was useful to have a Republican-backed group bump up against the reality of voter registration in Texas, as maybe that might give a little push to the eventual passage of a bill to allow online voter registration, which the earlier judge’s ruling cracked a door open for. But let’s be real, as with every other worthwhile election reform, the main prerequisite is going to be a Democratic trifecta in our state government.

Meanwhile, in other election innovations:

Utilizing its platform, Snapchat, the popular social media app, is registering new voters ahead of the election on Nov. 3. As of this report, the app has registered 407,024 people, according to data reported within the app. A spokesperson confirmed with Axios that the tally seen in the app’s “Register to Vote” portal represents the number of users who registered to vote via the app.

Snapchat is commonly used by millennials and Gen Z, including a wide number of people who recently turned 18 years old and who will have the ability to vote for the first time this year. To guide individuals through the ballot process and help ease the process of registering to vote, Snap–the company that owns the app–has partnered with Democracy Works’ TurboVote. To streamline the process of the registering feature, Voter Registration “Mini” allows users to register within the app itself instead of visiting registration sites. The tool became available last week and has already registered nearly as many voters as the app did in 2018 with the same feature.

For the 2018 midterm elections, Snap registered at least 450,000 new voters. Most of those who registered were between the ages of 18 to 24 years old and did so in key states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, a company spokesperson said. According to the company, 57% of users who registered to vote with Snapchat went out and cast ballots, Axios reported. In addition to the voter registration tool, Snapchat is promoting a voter guide that allows users to search for terms associated with voting and the election, as well as guide them on how the process of voting works. To ensure users are prepared for Election Day, the app’s tool, called BallotReady, walks users through how to vote-by-mail and cast a ballot, with COVID-19 precautions in mind.

Give people the chance to use new technology in ways not originally envisioned, and they will. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case it certainly is. It’s up to us to ensure this kind of innovation is widely available.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

And so the re-reopening begins

Are we really ready for this?

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that most of Texas will be able to loosen some coronavirus restrictions, including letting many businesses increase their capacity to 75%, as soon as Monday.

Retail stores, restaurants and office buildings, which have been open at 50% capacity, will be permitted to expand to 75% capacity. Hospitals will be allowed to offer elective procedures again and nursing homes can reopen for visitations under certain standards.

The new reopening stage applies to 19 of the state’s 22 hospital regions. The three hospital regions excluded are in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria. Abbott said those regions’ hospitalizations are still “in the danger zone,” which he defined as places where coronavirus patients make up 15% or more of all hospitalizations.

At the same time, Abbott said the state was not yet ready to reopen bars, saying they are “nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.” He stressed, though, that the state is looking for ways to let bars reopen safely.

[…]

“Gov. Abbott’s press conference today was notable for what he didn’t say,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “There was no mention of a contact tracing program, no mention of improving the state’s unreliable data and no mention of expanding Medicaid to increase access to health care for the millions of Texans who are uninsured.”

The Texas Democratic Party said Abbott is “basing his decisions on dirty data.”

Abbott began the news conference by hailing the state’s progress in the fight against coronavirus, saying the “biggest reason” for improvements has been that Texans are taking the pandemic seriously and exercising personal responsibility.

The governor reminded Texans that doctors have said the goal is not to eradicate the virus but to “contain the disease, to limit its harm and to maximize the health care system’s ability to treat both COVID patients as well as other medical needs of the community.”

When it comes to further reopenings, he emphasized the state will consider all data but “rely most heavily” on hospitalizations, calling that metric the “most important information about the severity of COVID in any particular region.” It is also the “most accurate information available on a daily basis,” Abbott said.

To that end, the regions that will be allowed to further reopen must have seen coronavirus hospitalizations make up less than 15% of all hospitalizations for seven consecutive days, according to the governor. If coronavirus hospitalizations rise above the 15% threshold for seven consecutive days in a region, a “course correction is going to be needed,” Abbott said, suggesting the solution would be a reversal of the area’s latest reopenings.

Given that many other countries have essentially eradicated the virus, one could certainly disagree with Abbott’s assertion about what the goal should be. Though to be fair, it does seem impossible to set such a goal while Donald Trump is President, so perhaps this is just Abbott acceding to that reality. The Chron adds some details.

The new regional threshold marks a significant shift for the Republican governor as the state’s pandemic response moves into the fall, with flu season arriving and many schools about to reopen for in-person instruction. He previously resisted committing to a regional approach, and said he would rely on a range of metrics — not just hospitalizations — to determine policies.

But the state’s health agency has been dogged by data backlogs, and some counties said they had lost confidence in state metrics such as the number of new daily infections and the percent of positive COVID tests, also known as the positivity rate. While the state has remedied at least some of the issues, hospitalization data have been more reliable throughout the pandemic.

Other large states, including New York and California, are currently using regional reopening plans based on several criteria, including new cases and test positivity. Public health experts caution against relying on hospitalizations alone, since they lag behind infections and therefore provide a delayed glimpse into the community spread of the virus.

All but two of the state’s 22 hospital regions have previously surpassed the new 15-percent threshold, according to the state’s calculation. The governor did not provide the methodology for how they calculated the percentages, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about how the benchmark was selected.

The state has reported nearly 700,000 infections since March and nearly 14,500 deaths, a toll similar to that in other large states, including California and Florida. New York has reported fewer infections but more deaths, stemming from a surge earlier this year.

Texas has been below 10 percent test positivity for at least two weeks now. Earlier this week, state health officials unveiled a new method of calculating the rate, which shows it first dropped below 10 percent in mid August. Abbott has said before that he would consider further reopenings once the state remained below that threshold for two weeks.

Yes, our lousy data quality is an issue. I get that there’s a lot of pressure to let businesses get back to “normal” again. But let’s be real here: One, plenty of people will still not change their habits to what they were in the Before Times until they feel confident that the pandemic is truly under control. Public opinion is clear that most people do not feel this way, and as such this greatly limits the upside of any reopening scheme. Two, we have been down this road before, and the last time we went this way Abbott basically ignored all the metrics that he himself set and just went about loosening restrictions even though none of his own stated criteria were being met. There’s no reason to believe he has learned this lesson. Three, even if we had complete clarity on hospitalizations, that’s a lagging indicator, meaning that by the time the hospitals have started to fill up again, it’s already too late to stop it. Four, see above about the lack of our data quality, which again strongly suggests that even if Abbott is sincere about turning the car around at the first sign of trouble, that first sign may not be at all apparent when it’s happening.

Finally, the reason why people finally started to take the pandemic seriously is because Greg Abbott finally started taking it seriously, and conveying a message that we all needed to be wearing face masks and social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors. We certainly haven’t gotten that message from Donald Trump or his biggest toadies like Dan Patrick. If you want to praise everyone for their personal responsibility, then you need to emphasize that they have to continue being personally responsible, which means wearing masks and so on. If that makes the rock-filled heads of Steven Hotze and his ilk explode, then so be it. Abbott loves being in front of the parade, but he does a crappy job of leading it. As I said the last time we re-opened, I really hope this works out. And I really hope Abbott is serious about backing off at the first sign that it isn’t. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, the Texas Signal, and the Houston Press have more.

We suck at COVID data, the continuing story

Would have been nice to have known this when it was happening.

State health officials published new data this week that showed the state’s positivity rate was higher in the spring that originally disclosed, even as public officials cited the data to justify business reopenings during the pandemic.

The Department of State Health Services on Monday announced a new method for calculating the positivity rate, or the proportion of positive tests, and conceded the previous method obscured the extent of viral transmission by combining old and new cases. The new formula relies on the date a coronavirus test was administered, rather than the date it was reported to health officials and verified as a case.

As Texas prepared for the first phase of reopening in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly pointed to the state’s positivity rate, even as the number of new cases and deaths continued to rise. Announcing his initial reopening order on April 27, Abbott declared that the “COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

The following week, the governor downplayed a new single-day record in new COVID-19 cases by again pointing to the positivity rate.

“Despite concentrating on areas where we think there may be a high level or number of people who could test positive, the fact remains that more than 95% of the people who were tested test negative,” Abbott said during a May 5 news conference.

State data at the time placed the seven-day average positivity rate at 5.84%, near the 5% benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization before governments ease restrictions. The actual rate, however, was higher. According to the new method employed by DSHS, Texas’ seven-day average positivity rate was actually 8.4%, near the 10% threshold Abbott had called a “warning flag” indicating a high level of community spread.

Following the reopening of bars, restaurants, stores and child care centers throughout May, Texas saw a surge in cases beginning in June. The state’s reported seven-day average positivity rate under the old method jumped from 4.27% at its lowest point in late May to 17.4% at its peak in mid-July. After revising the data, the state’s new chart shows that the positivity rate jumped from 5.81% in May to a peak of 21% in early July.

See here, here, and here for earlier entries in this chronicle. This stuff is hard, I don’t want to minimize that. Doctors and scientists have made mistakes and have changed their tune on COVID-related matters over time, as new data has come in and revised our understanding of what we thought we knew. Maybe no one could have known this at the time, I’m not in a position to judge. But as we’ve said before, the state rushed to reopen on Greg Abbott’s orders even as the Abbott-defined metrics for reopening were not being met. Now we know we were even further from the desired levels than we thought, and many more people have gotten sick and died or are suffering from long-term effects of the virus. We can have some level of sympathy for Greg Abbott, we can recognize that anyone would have made bad decisions if they were given bad data, and still hold him responsible for the outcome. His decision to reopen as he did was risky at the time, and it’s so much worse now. That’s all on him.

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

Big 10 flip flops on football

It’s a powerful force.

The Big Ten announced Tuesday that its Council of Presidents and Chancellors has voted to allow the league to play football in fall 2020. The Big Ten will open its season on the weekend of Oct. 24 with teams playing eight regular-season games over eight weeks along with a Big Ten Championship Game and six additional consolation games.

The Big Ten Championship Game is scheduled for Dec. 19, making the Big Ten eligible or the College Football Playoff as the final CFP Rankings announcement of the season is set or Dec. 20.

The Big Ten will also play league consolation games with teams placing second- through seventh-place in their divisions matching up on Dec. 19. There may be adjustments to those games, however, as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the Big Ten will try to avoid repeat matchups if teams had already played in the regular season.

Tickets will not be sold and fans will not be allowed to attend games this season, though exceptions may be made for families of athletes, coaches and staff.

The conference will now feature daily, rapid COVID-19 testing as a focal point of its return to play plan. Testing for athletes and coaches will begin on Sept. 30. The earliest an athlete could return to game competition is 21 days following a positive diagnosis. Additionally, the Big Ten unveiled new information on its plans for myocarditis screening in the wake of any positive tests. Both of those were major concerns that were among the main reasons for the Big Ten’s original decision to cancel fall football on Aug. 11.

See here for the background, and here for the Big Ten’s statement on testing and other protocols. That just leaves the PAC 12 among the Power 5 conferences not playing football this fall, though many other conferences have opted out. Maybe this will work, and maybe the carping from people who want to know why the schools aren’t providing tests for all of their students won’t be a drag, but it’s fair to say there will be issues.

Despite the delayed start, there remain numerous roadblocks for an actual return to football. Wisconsin football and hockey, for example, recently paused for two weeks after a rash of COVID-19 positives. Meanwhile, games across the country continue to be postponed left and right. Virginia-Virginia Tech, Houston-Memphis, Army-BYU and SMU-TCU are just some of the 13 games that have already been postponed; some games may be canceled if new dates are not easily achieved.

Like I said, maybe this will work. And maybe it will be a huge mess. This Slate piece argues that if you were going to do college football this fall, you’d want to do it the way the Big 10 is proposing to do it, so we’ll see. Good luck and let’s hope nobody’s health is permanently damaged as a result.

SCOTX extends stay in Harris County vote by mail case

I was set to be super outraged about this, but as you will see it’s not quite as bad as it first looked.

The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, granting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request hours earlier for the high court to step in before a different order halting the mailout was set to expire.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send applications to each of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters would confuse voters and lead to potential fraud. A state district judge rejected that argument Friday, and Paxton swiftly appealed to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

The appellate court denied Paxton’s request for an order blocking the mailout, deciding instead to speed up the trial by ordering Hollins and Paxton to submit arguments by Wednesday afternoon. Under an agreement between the state and county offices, Hollins was barred from sending out mail ballot applications until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Paxton, who noted that the appeals court “offered no assurance” it would issue a ruling by then, argued in a court filing Tuesday afternoon that the Texas Supreme Court should prevent Hollins from sending out applications once the clock strikes midnight Thursday morning. The court granted Paxton’s request, ordering Hollins not to send unsolicited applications “until further order of this court.”

The state Supreme Court already had blocked Hollins from mailing out applications to voters under 65 through a similar lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party and conservative activist Steven Hotze. However, Paxton noted, the court’s stay order will expire before the state and county agreement is up Wednesday evening.

Hollins was not immediately available for comment.

The clerk’s office already has mailed applications to voters who are 65 and older, all of whom are eligible to vote by mail under Texas law. The state election code also allows voters to cast mail ballots if they are disabled, imprisoned or out of their home county during the voting period.

Emphasis mine, and see here and here for the background. You can see the court’s order here, a statement from County Clerk Chris Hollins here, and the filings in the appeal to the 14th Court here. (You might also note that the three judges in the panel are all Dems, which may have influenced Paxton’s actions.) There should be a hearing today, and one presumes a fairly quick ruling, after which point this will go back to SCOTX and they’ll have to rule one way or the other on the actual case, not on what can happen while the case is being appealed. So as Samuel L. Jackson once said, hold onto your butts. The Trib and Reform Austin have more.

Everybody is invited!

I missed this last week.

ACC men’s basketball coaches are proposing an expanded 2021 NCAA tournament that would include every Division I team.

Several ACC coaches would prefer to avoid nonconference games in the 2020-21 season due to complications from the coronavirus pandemic, with sources telling ESPN that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is spearheading the push for an all-inclusive NCAA tournament.

ACC coaches voted Wednesday to propose the expanded 2021 NCAA tournament, sources confirmed to ESPN. The vote was first reported by Stadium.

Krzyzewski released a statement later Wednesday that said, in part, there “is no better way” to celebrate the game “than involving every team in the most prestigious basketball tournament on the planet.”

He said the primary factors the coaches considered were the health and safety of players, the incentive that there will be games leading to the tournament, and that they need to be unified as a sport, with all 357 Division I teams.

“This is not a regular season,” Krzyzewski said. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative.”

Oh, my God, this would have been awesome. I mean, dumb and unworkable from a pandemic perspective, but come on, let us dream for a minute. We all love the scrappy underdogs taking out established blue bloods in the first round, and a first round that included 256 teams would have had all kinds of possibilities for that happening. Just getting to see a slew of new mascots and goofy uniform color schemes and 15-second promos for each school we’d never heard of would have made the whole thing worthwhile. So of course the cooler heads at the NCAA killed the idea without even giving it a chance to breathe.

The ACC’s proposal for an all-inclusive NCAA men’s basketball tournament that would feature every Division I team does not currently have the backing of the event’s leadership.

On Thursday, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the organization is not considering a “contingency plan” to expand the tournament, a day after ACC men’s basketball coaches, in a movement led by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, proposed a field that would include every Division I team in the 2021 NCAA tournament after a Wednesday vote.

“Every college basketball team’s goal is to play in the NCAA tournament because everyone loves March Madness,” Gavitt said in a statement. “Certainly we missed it this year and can’t wait for 2021. While all who care about the game are entitled to their opinion, and we’ll always listen respectfully, at this time we are not working on any contingency plan that involves expanding the tournament field.”

Spoilsports. OK, OK, I admit, there were logistical issues, but surely they could have been overcome.

Consider:

  • There are 346 Division I schools eligible for NCAA tourney play this coming season. That is 324 more teams than the NBA sent to its Orlando bubble. Conservatively estimating each school’s travel party at 25, we’re going to repeatedly test and quarantine more than 8,000 people? Just so half of them can lose and go home after 40 minutes of basketball? I don’t think so.
  • The bracket itself, while amusing, would tax even the best of us. The basic math dictates that 166 teams receive opening round byes. The remaining 180 would play 90 additional games to create a symmetrical field of 256 teams, followed by a tidy eight-round gauntlet through the Final Four.
  • All told, we’re increasing the number of games — with commensurate travel and risk — from 67 to 345. That’s a fivefold increase and, while epidemiology is not my “ology,” I do know that infectious disease transmission is not arithmetic. We would be looking at way, way, WAY more than five times the amount of exposure.

Yes, yes, I know, the damned pandemic. I know in my heart of hearts that this would never have been possible. But damn, it would have been fun.

The case for voting in person

From Wired, an argument for worrying less about voting by mail because voting in person is still a fine way to do it.

Casting a ballot in person, it turns out, isn’t so dangerous after all. Early in the pandemic, this might have seemed a crazy thing to suggest. The Wisconsin primary, back in March, was widely described in apocalyptic tones. The New York Times called it “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” After state Democrats fought unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for mailing back absentee ballots, the ensuing photos of long lines at Milwaukee polling places seemed to presage an explosion of Covid-19 cases.

But the bomb never blew. As I observed in May, there was no noticeable rise in coronavirus cases thanks to the Wisconsin primary. A follow-up study by researchers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” In fact, case numbers in Milwaukee were lower in the weeks after the election than in the weeks before it. There are caveats: In-person turnout was low overall thanks to broad use of mail-in ballots, and we don’t know how coronavirus prevalence in March will compare with November. Still, it’s telling that there have been no credible reports of virus spikes attributable to any other election this year, even though ill-considered polling place closures have led to further instances of Milwaukee-style overcrowding.

Why might voting be safer than expected? We now know that the coronavirus spreads mostly when people are in sustained indoor contact—settings like a restaurant, a bar, or a shared home or office. The risk of transmission in fleeting encounters, by contrast, is small. Outdoors, it is vanishingly so. Even the massive protests following the killing of George Floyd, which even sympathizers feared would seed outbreaks, did not, according to several large studies. The pandemic is really an indoor problem. Even the defining image of the danger of voting during a pandemic—lines around the block—serves to illustrate why there’s little to fear. For most people, standing in a spaced-out line, outdoors, while wearing masks, entails at most a paltry risk.

“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason I can see why that’d not be the case,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent National Geographic event. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.” Likewise, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice advises, “In-person voting can be conducted safely if jurisdictions take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to voters and election workers.”

This assumes that any lines one may have to wait on will be primarily outside. That’s not been my experience in past elections, but I feel reasonably confident that outdoor lines will be the norm this time around. In Harris and Bexar and Dallas and hopefully other counties, there will be some larger venues, like convention centers and sports arenas, being used as voting locations, which will also help. Point being, I tend to agree with the assessment that the risk of in person voting, assuming widespread mask usage, is fairly minimal.

There are also practical considerations about voting by mail. Jamelle Bouie wrote in the Times that a key piece of Trump’s Election Day strategy is to delegitimize any votes that are not counted on Election Day. Remember how many elections Democrats won in 2018 due to mail ballots that weren’t counted until after Election Day? That’s been called the “blue shift”, and Donald Trump will scream from the rooftops that those mail ballots don’t count and amount to stealing the election if he’s in any position to claim a win on the evening of November 3, regardless of the lie of his statement. The best way to prevent that is to have as many votes counted by the time the news people start giving us numbers from around the country. That means voting in person. Note that in some states, even if your mail ballot is received way early, it may be the case that it won’t be officially tallied until Election Day, which could still lead to this situation. Voting in person will not have that problem.

Other concerns include the unknown potential for mail delivery delays, which G. Elliott Morris tried to quantify, and problems with mail ballots being rejected due to alleged signature mismatches or other issues, which is something that of course happens at a higher rate to Black and Latino voters. (Black voters are, understandably, more dubious about voting by mail.) The recent court order helps in this regard, but it’s still a factor, and we don’t know yet if there will be an appeal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but younger voters are just simply not used to using the postal service, and may have problems with mail ballots as a result. All of this may turn out to be minor, but maybe it won’t. We just don’t know. Again, the remedy here is to vote in person if that is a reasonable option for you.

Of course, to some extent in Texas, this is an academic point. The large majority of us cannot vote by mail, something the state leadership has done everything in its power to ensure will still be the case. I have said and will continue to say, if you do qualify for a mail ballot, by all means apply for it and use it. Having more people vote by mail not only keeps them safe, it also means shorter lines and faster processing times at voting locations, which is something we all want. Just be very prompt about it, and track your ballot to make sure it is received. Use a dropoff location if practical. The real point here is that we all actually do need to make a plan to vote, and that plan needs to encompass the when, the where, and the how. Be part of the solution to ensure that everyone can vote as easily and safely as possible. I don’t need to say how much is riding on that.

Houston to allow some limited events

I dunno, man. I get the impulse, but I don’t think I’m ready.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will allow certain events in what the mayor calls “controlled environments” to resume in the city, marking his most significant move toward reopening as the spread of COVID-19 slows here.

The events still will have limited crowds, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a news conference Wednesday. All attendees must wear masks, answer a virus questionnaire, submit to a temperature screening and maintain social distancing.

The events that received the city’s approval so far are: a drive-in tailgate Thursday for the Texans: 100 cars are allowed, with a maximum of four people per car; Houston Symphony concerts: 150 guests will be allowed in the 3,000-seat Jones Hall auditorium; and Houston Dynamo and Dash games at BBVA Stadium: the teams are preparing for up to 3,000 fans, which would be about 14 percent capacity.

The Dynamo averaged 15,674 fans at 17 home games in 2019, and the Dash garnered an average of 4,086 fans, the teams said. The schedule for Major League Soccer’s Phase 2 has not been released yet, so it is not yet clear when fans will return. The teams’ plans for welcoming fans include staggered entry times for the stadium, and “seating pods” that minimize interaction between different groups of fans.

“I think we are all wanting to open up even more,” Turner said, “but we also recognize that it is better to be cautious rather than to be aggressive, and then finding ourselves having to go right back to the very beginning.”

While transmission is decreasing, the virus continues to spread in Houston. The city has driven down its positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — to 6.6 percent. Turner had set a goal of getting that number, which peaked above 25 percent in late June and early July, below 5 percent by the end of August.

The national average is 5.3 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, have seen their rates drop to below 1 percent. Houston has reported 66,483 cases of the virus and 906 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the region has made significant progress, but it has not reached the point where it is in control of the virus.

“Any large gathering where there are people in close contact — particularly if you’re indoors and generating a lot of respiratory droplets, if you are yelling or screaming or singing — it’s going to increase the chance of outbreaks,” she said.

[…]

The city is requiring an extensive list of safety protocols, [Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events] said. The three events approved Wednesday already had adopted most of those protocols.

“We just had to tweak it a bit,” she said. “These producers have been working on these guidelines, as we have, for quite some time now.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said the county is waiting for its threat index to lower before it considers allowing similarly-sized events. The county remains at the most serious threat level, which “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19.”

“Trends are moving in the right direction right now, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.

I’ve stared at this draft for some time now, and I still don’t know what to say. I lean towards the county’s view, but I get what the city is trying to do. There’s got to be a lot of pressure for some return to having public events, and of course not being able to have them is a drain on city finances. You can make a risk-based assessment for either position. I just hope this works out.

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.

A new COVID testing strategy

Sounds promising.

Harris County wants to implement a program that would look at how and where active COVID infection exists, hoping to better understand how the virus spreads within the region in real time, and use those findings to help shape public health policy.

This commonly used public health strategy involves analyzing representative samples of the population to get a better picture of how the virus is acting rather than just looking at overall infection numbers in the hopes that such data could help single out and address hotspots. By understanding the circumstances, occupations and activities that drive community spread, public health officials and legislators would be better equipped to understand the virus and address high-risk COVID communities.

While Harris County COVID testing currently takes place at a number of fixed drive-through and mobile sites, as well as through private and other healthcare providers, the program, known as surveillance testing, would provide data at the community-level that broadens data collection beyond those actively seeking out testing for possible infection. This type of survey would also help obtain data on asymptomatic cases.

How the county will implement the program has not been determined. A committee has been in the process of reviewing proposals from organizations that submitted applications to conduct the study. Each proposal must outline a plan — including collection strategy, finances and other project details.

Surveillance testing programs generally involve recruiting participants for a medical test as well as having them complete a questionnaire or additional survey, explained Dr. Rebecca Fischer, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. This information could be collected by going door-to-door, setting up an outdoor site, or recruiting participants through a website.

“A community surveillance testing program could really be a game-changer if done correctly,” Dr. E. Susan Amirian, epidemiologist at the Texas Policy Lab at Rice University, wrote in an email. The group was approached by County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office to help officials better understand the epidemiological and scientific aspects of such a project. The Harris County Public Health Department has also been involved in an advisory role, said the department’s media specialist Martha Marquez.

With no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place, states, counties and universities have taken it upon themselves to conduct these kinds of “surveillance tests” to learn more about how the virus acts and spreads in their communities. Current reporting tactics are considered “passive” surveillance since they rely on people actively seeking diagnosis, said Fischer.

There’s more, and you should read the rest, but stop and focus for a minute on the first sentence of that last paragraph. Why, exactly, is there “no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place”? I mean, we know the answer to that question, but the point is that in the midst of the non-stop chaos and sabotage and authoritarianism, we’re still asking the same questions, making the same arguments, and waiting for the same basic things as we were six months ago. We should maybe try not to forget that.

Now we wait on SCOTX

Shouldn’t have to wait too long to get a resolution to the “Harris County Clerk wanting to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters” question.

Chris Hollins

A day after a court ruled against him, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed on Saturday an order that allowed mail-in ballot applications to sent to all of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Paxton indicated in a press statement that he expects the court should rule by Monday.

“The proposed mass mailing would sow confusion because applications would go to all registered voters, regardless of whether they legally qualify to vote a mail ballot and regardless of whether they even want to vote by mail,” says a news release from Paxton’s office. “Texas law requires the clerk to send applications to voters who specifically request them.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Saturday that applications to voters under 65 are in production and will be sent out soon. His office has already sent out vote-by-mail applications to registered voters 65 and older.

“We’re disappointed that the attorney general is fighting so hard to keep information and resources out of the hands of Harris County voters, but, sadly, we aren’t at all surprised,” Hollins said. “The Harris County Clerk’s Office will continue to do everything we can to protect Texans’ right to vote, and we know that the law is on our side.”

See here for the background. Judge Sandill’s ruling very clearly addressed Paxton’s claims, so it’s really just a question of whether the Supremes want to put a thumb on the scale for Paxton or not. I keep coming back to their original ruling in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit, and I don’t know how you get to Paxton’s desired outcome without really warping the meaning of the existing law. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t do it, just that it should be clear what it would mean if they did. I don’t know what else to say.

One lawsuit about voting locations thrown out

This was filed just a couple of months ago.

Continuing to fend off attempts to alter its voting processes, Texas has convinced a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that sought sweeping changes to the state’s rules for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam dismissed a legal challenge Monday from Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters who claimed the state’s current polling place procedures — including rules for early voting, the likelihood of long lines and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks — would place an unconstitutional burden on voters while the novel coronavirus remains in circulation.

In his order, Pulliam noted that the requests were not unreasonable and could “easily be implemented to ensure all citizens in the State of Texas feel safe and are provided the opportunity to cast their vote in the 2020 election.” But he ultimately decided the court lacked jurisdiction to order the changes requested — an authority, he wrote, left to the state.

“This Court is cognizant of the urgency of Plaintiffs’ concerns and does respect the importance of protecting all citizens’ right to vote,” Pulliam wrote. “Within its authority to do so, this Court firmly resolves to prevent any measure designed or disguised to deter this most important fundamental civil right. At the same time, the Court equally respects and must adhere to the Constitution’s distribution and separation of power.”

The long list of changes the plaintiffs sought included a month of early voting, an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place, the opening of additional polling places, a prohibition on the closure of polling places scheduled to be open on Election Day and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place. Other requested changes were more ambiguous, such as asking the court to order that all polling places be sufficiently staffed to keep wait times to less than 20 minutes. The lawsuit named Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as defendants, but the suit targeted some decisions that are ultimately up to local officials.

The plaintiffs argued the changes were needed because the burdens brought on by an election during a pandemic would be particularly high for Black and Latino voters whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, there is now a third week of early voting, and at least the larger counties like Harris have been making plans to greatly expand the number of in-person voting locations, both for early voting and Election Day, so the plaintiffs didn’t walk away with nothing. Harris County will also have expanded curbside voting; I don’t know offhand what other counties are doing. That’s not the same as a statewide mandate, but it will be good for the voters who can experience it. The mask mandate seems like the most obvious and straightforward thing to me, and anyone who would argue that being forced to wear a mask in order to vote is an unconstitutional violation of their rights will need to very carefully explain to me why that’s a greater obstacle than our state’s voter ID law. I would have liked to see this survive the motion to dismiss, but at least we are all clear about what the to-do list for expanding voting rights in the Legislature is. Reform Austin has more.

County Clerk can send his vote by mail applications

Good.

Chris Hollins

A judge on Friday rejected Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to halt Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill denied Paxton’s request for a temporary injunction, stating that nothing in the Texas Election Code bars Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins from carrying out the plan.

Sandill was unpersuaded by the state’s argument that sending applications to voters, accompanied by eligibility rules, would lead residents to apply for mail ballots for which they do not qualify. Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram warned that this would lead to voter fraud and potential felony prosecutions of residents.

“This Court firmly believes that Harris County voters are capable of reviewing and understanding the document Mr. Hollins proposes to send and exercising their voting rights in compliance with Texas law,” Sandill wrote in his opinion.

The case now will be decided on its merits, with Hollins free to send the applications in the meantime. His spokeswoman said the mailings to voters under 65 would be sent starting Saturday.

See here for the background. The ACLU sent out a link to a copy of the ruling, which is short and straightforward. There were two claims made by the plaintiffs, that County Clerk Chris Hollins was acting ultra vires, which is the fancy Latin term for “outside his authority”, and that sending the applications could cause fraud by luring unsuspecting voters who did not qualify for the mail ballot to commit fraud. On that second point, the embedded illustration of the ballot application makes exceedingly short work of that concern:

As for the ultra vires claim, let me quote from the ruling:

The Legislature has spoken at length on the mechanisms for mail-in voting. There are no fewer than 42 Election Code provisions on the subject. See TEX. ELEC. CODE, Chs. 84, 86 & 87. In those provisions, the Legislature has made clear that in order to vote by mail a voter first “must make an application for an early voting ballot.” Id. at § 84.001. But, as to how the voter is to obtain the application, the Election Code is silent.

There is no code provision that limits an early voting clerk’s ability to send a vote by mail application to a registered voter. Section 84.012 contains no prohibitive language whatsoever, but rather, requires the early voting clerk to take affirmative action in the instance a voter does request an application to vote by mail. That the clerk must provide an application upon request does not preclude the clerk from providing an application absent a request.

Indeed, there are a number of code provisions that demonstrate the Legislature’s desire for mail voting applications to be freely disseminated. For example, section 1.010 mandates that a county clerk with whom mail voting applications are to be filed (e.g., Mr. Hollins) make the applications “readily and timely available.” Id. at § 1.010. In addition, section 84.013 requires that vote by mail applications be provided “in reasonable quantities without charge to individuals or organizations requesting them for distribution to voters.” Id. at § 84.013. Further, the Court notes that, consistent with these provisions, both the Secretary of State and the County make the application for a mail ballot readily available on their respective websites.

Against the backdrop of this statutory scheme, the Court cannot accept the State’s interpretation of section 84.012. To do so would read into the statute words that do not exist and would lead to the absurd result that any and every private individual or organization may without limit send unsolicited mail voting applications to registered voters, but that the early voting clerk, who possesses broad statutory authority to manage and conduct the election, cannot. Mr. Hollins’s contemplated conduct does not exceed his statutory authority as early voting clerk and therefore is not ultra vires.

I made pretty much the same argument, so yeah. This was a weak case, and I’d hate to have been the attorney that was forced to make it. They had to know it was a loser, but I guess once you’re all in for stamping out voter convenience, you’ve got to take it to the finish line. The state has filed its appeal, so one presumes they are hoping to get lucky with the Supreme Court.

Which brings me to the larger point that needs to be made here. As with the age discrimination claim, there is a clear and straightforward legislative solution to this. Unlike that age discrimination case, the legislative solutions go both ways. What I mean by that is that with this ruling in the books, the Republicans have a planet-sized incentive to close this gaping loophole (as they see it) in the law. If the Republicans maintain control of the House, I guarantee you – guarantee you – they will pass a bill that severely restricts the ability to send out vote by mail applications to anyone who does not expressly ask for them. One could argue, given recent legislative history, the only reason such restrictions don’t already exist is that they hadn’t thought of it before. (And to be fair, up until very recently vote by mail was very much the province of Republican candidates and campaigns. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there’s a reason why voting by mail was excluded from the voter ID law, and that reason is because at the time, voting by mail was seen as a boon to Republicans. Now that any form of convenience for voters is seen as pro-Democratic, it’s open season.)

So, either we flip the House to Democratic control, and prevent a bill like that from passing, or Republicans maintain control and voting by mail becomes that much more obstacle-laden. Maybe they will find a way to add mail ballots to the voter ID law, perhaps by requiring all mail ballots to include a notarized signature. The Republicans have made it clear what they want to do. We have one chance to stop them. The Trib has more.

Fifth Circuit rejects age discrimination claims in vote by mail lawsuit

This is pretty much the end of the line, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Texas can keep its strict eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Siding with the state’s Republican leadership, the appellate judges rejected the Texas Democratic Party’s effort to expand eligibility for voting by mail to all registered voters based on their argument that the state’s age restrictions for such voting violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting rules that discriminate based on age.

The panel of appellate judges ultimately found that “conferring a privilege” to some voters — in this case the option of voting by mail to voters 65 and older — does not alone violate the 26th Amendment.

“In sum, the plaintiffs based their Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim on the argument that differential treatment in allowing voters aged 65 and older to vote by mail without excuse constitutes, at least during the pandemic, a denial or abridgment of a younger citizen’s right to vote on account of age,” the panel wrote. “This claim fails because adding a benefit to another class of voters does not deny or abridge the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote.”

The federal panel vacated a lower court’s sweeping ruling that found Texas voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail were in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. On Thursday, state Democrats indicated they would push forward with their challenge at the lower court, where the appellate court sent the case for further consideration of the party’s remaining arguments against the state’s restrictions.

[…]

“Rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments, we hold that an election law abridges a person’s right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced,” the judges wrote.

The panel was made up by Judges Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; Carl Stewart, who was appointed by Bill Clinton; and Leslie H. Southwick, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

Dissenting in part to the majority opinion, Stewart wrote that the state’s eligibility rules fail to “treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting.”

“This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic,” Stewart wrote. “Though all individuals can seemingly vote in person, those without the opportunity to vote by mail have less opportunity to participate than others.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Michael Hurta has a good brief analysis of it. As to what happens next, Rick Hasen thinks the original trial judge will find for the plaintiffs again, which will trigger another appeal. As such, this isn’t really the end of the line as I’ve suggested above, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be a ruling that favors the plaintiffs any time before the November election. Whatever ultimately happens with this will not happen until at least 2021. I don’t care for this ruling, and this was about as friendly a three-judge panel as we were gonna get. It’s hard for me to see how the outcome changes.

Which means, as I have been saying over and over again, the ultimate fix rests within the legislative process. Just add this to the ever-increasing list of things that a Democratic Legislature, in conjunction with a Democratic Governor, will need to fix. The Republicans have made their position crystal clear. There’s no bipartisan solution. The only way out is through, and that means electing a better government. The Chron has more.

Where are we with the lawsuit to stop Harris County from sending out vote by mail applications?

Thanks for asking, we had the hearing in district court yesterday.

Voting in person will be safe across Texas in this fall’s general election despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s elections director asserted in a Harris County courtroom Wednesday

Keith Ingram, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, made the statement while testifying against Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county.

“Voters who want to vote by mail, and qualify to vote by mail, they should. And voters who want to vote in person, we would encourage them to do so,” Ingram said. “It’ll be safe for them to do so, and the counties will have a good experience for the voters.”

The Attorney General’s Office called Ingram as a witness in an injunction hearing seeking to halt Hollins’s plan while the underlying case makes its way through the courts. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill made no immediate ruling on the injunction, though at times appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments.

At the heart of the case is whether Hollins would exceed his authority as county clerk by sending mail ballot applications to each voter, which Harris County never has done. In the four-hour online hearing, lawyers for the state and county described starkly different consequences of carrying out the plan.

Ingram said Harris County’s plan would confuse voters and encourage some to vote fraudulently, undermining the public’s trust in the integrity of elections. He noted that lying on a mail ballot application is a state jail felony and residents could be prosecuted well after this fall’s election.

“When something strange, or unusual happens, voters are very concerned that this is an opportunity for fraud, and when they think the other side is cheating, they tend to stay home, Ingram said. “That’s the concern about a mass mailing like this.”

Hollins said he simply is trying to help as many eligible voters cast ballots as possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many would feel safer voting by mail. The top of each application would feature a checklist explicitly explaining the eligibility rules. Hollins dismissed the state’s argument that voters would be confused as absurd.

“It would be a very bizarre and highly unlikely outcome that somehow, someone would unfold this fully, go to the very bottom, and think ‘I need to fill this out,’ without ever having looked up here,” Hollins said, pointing to a draft mailer in his hand.

See here and here for the background. You already know how I feel about this, and there’s nothing in this story to suggest that the state has improved on its weak arguments. I’m glad to see that Judge Sandill pointed out to the state that they had no objections before when Hollins sent applications to every over-65 voter in the county. There’s an edge of desperation in this lawsuit, and while one could argue it’s not the best use of the county’s money to do this, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court seems pretty clear.

Several organizations have taken action to support the County Clerk or oppose the state. The League of Women Voters of Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed an amicus brief, as HEB executive Charles Butt had previously done. The NAACP of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region filed a petition to intervene in opposition to the state, saying an injunction would harm the people they represent. Clerk Hollins’ response to Paxton is here. We should get the ruling by tomorrow, but we all know it will be appealed.

Speaking of such thing, here’s Hollins’ response to Hotze, from that ridiculous mandamus. The arguments are what you’d expect, and given the courtroom action in Houston I’d expect the Supremes to deny the writ, since there clearly is the time to litigate the matter. When they take action is of course anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

They just don’t want you to vote by mail

It’s okay if you’re a Republican, of course.

As states across the country scramble to make voting safer in a pandemic, Texas is in the small minority of those requiring voters who want to cast their ballots by mail to present an excuse beyond the risk of contracting the coronavirus at polling places. But the ongoing attempts by the White House to sow doubt over the reliability of voting by mail has left Texas voters in a blur of cognitive dissonance. Local officials are being reprimanded by the state’s Republican leadership for attempting to proactively send applications for mail-in ballots, while the people doing the scolding are still urging their voters to fill them out.

What was once a lightly used and largely uncontroversial voting option in Texas — one even Republicans relied on — is now the crux of the latest fight over who gets to vote and, equally as crucial in a pandemic, who has access to safe voting.

“Ensuring vulnerable populations can vote by mail during a pandemic is designed to protect human life & access to the vote,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Twitter this week after the county’s mailing plan was temporarily blocked by the Texas Supreme Court. “Those who stand in the way—using voter suppression as an electoral strategy—are throwing a wrench in democracy. We’ll keep fighting.”

[…]

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick characterized efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic as a “scam by Democrats” that would lead to “the end of America.” In a rolling series of tweets, President Donald Trump has pushed concerns of widespread fraud — which are unsubstantiated — in mail-in ballots. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quoted a local prosecutor saying voting by mail “invites fraud.”

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP sent out applications with mailers urging voters to make a plan to request their mail-in ballots. Fighting in court against Harris County’s plan, Paxton’s office argued “voting by mail is a cumbersome process with many steps to limit fraud.”

Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Texas GOP, confirmed the party had sent out ballot applications “like we do every year” to older voters and voters with disabilities that would allow them to qualify. Twombly did not respond to a follow up question on how the party determined voters who would be eligible based on a disability, nor did he respond to questions asking for specifics on the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts tied to voting by mail.

“The cynical explanation is that the intent here is to make it as easy as possible for Republicans to vote by mail but discouraging others and casting doubt over the process following the lead of the president,” said Rick Hasen, an elections lawyer and professor at the University of California-Irvine. “I think that’s a real fine needle to thread.”

It might be in the GOP’s best interest to “encourage voters to vote safely” by mail, particularly as the state’s vote-by-mail rules allow many of their base voters to be automatically eligible for an absentee ballot, but the president is complicating matters for them, Hasen said

“They are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Hasen said.

Some Texas Republicans quietly express frustration that party leaders are casting doubt on a system that they have worked for years to cultivate. West and other prominent Texas Republicans have floated unsubstantiated concerns that increased mail-in voting creates opportunities for widespread voter fraud. In interviews with multiple Republican operatives and attorneys who have worked on campaigns in the state, all suggested privately that the modernized system precludes such a scenario. None of these Republicans would go on the record, for fear of alienating colleagues.

There are some documented cases of fraud in mail-in voting in Texas. But like voter fraud overall, it remains rare.

“This issue … of fraud and voting fraud and all that was brought up years ago, 19 years ago when I was secretary of state,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who was appointed Texas secretary of state by former Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican. “I looked at it as secretary of state, and it was so rare, so rare.”

[…]

In an effort to combat confusion among voters, Harris County said it intended to send the applications for mail-in ballots with “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” In its mailers, the Texas GOP instructs voters to “take immediate action” by confirming they meet the eligibility requirements and filling out an application proactively sent out by the party.

[Derek] Ryan, the Republican voter data expert, suggested that a past Republican campaign emphasis on vote-by-mail lends credibility to the objections Republicans are raising in Harris County.

“Voting by mail is our bread and butter,” said Ryan, the Republican voter data expert. “I kind of dismiss that more ballot by mail votes automatically favor the Democrats over the Republicans. That might not necessarily be the case. I think that kind of says the Republicans who are opposed to it aren’t necessarily doing it because they think it benefits the Democrats. They’re doing it because of election integrity.”

But in light of those objections, the Texas Democratic Party painted the GOP’s mailings to voters who did not request them as “a shocking display of hypocrisy.”

“It seems if Republicans had their way, the only requirement for Texans to cast a mail-in ballot would be ‘are you voting for Donald Trump?’,” Abhi Rahman, the party’s communications director, said in a statement this week.

I don’t know that I have anything to say here that I haven’t said multiple times already. There’s no valid principle behind the Republicans’ zealous objections to vote by mail, which is something they have used and still use but apparently cannot believe that anyone else would dare use against them. The screeching claims of fraud are just the usual shibboleth, packaged for today’s needs. We know that national Republicans have largely given up on their ability to win a majority of the vote. It’s just kind of morbidly fascinating to see Republicans in Texas adopt the same stance. Who knew they had so little faith in themselves?

RIP, Luby’s

The end of an era.

Looks like the days of LuAnn platters are coming to an end. Luby’s board of directors has “approved and adopted a plan of liquidation and dissolution,” the company announced.

The plan will need to be approved by the company’s shareholders. A date for that vote was not included in today’s announcement.

Previously, Luby’s stated it would seek a sale of its assets that would pay off its debts and generate money for its stockholders. Following the liquidation plan will generate between $92 million and $123 million, according to the company’s estimates. That represents between $3 and $4 per share of its stock (approximately 30.7 million shares outstanding).

“This plan of liquidation is the next logical step in the company’s previously announced plan to maximize value of the company through the sale of its operations and assets,” Gerald Bodzy and Randolph Read, co-chairmen of the special committee responsible for the decision, said in a statement. “Our stockholders have expressed their support for seeking alternatives to continuing to operate the company’s restaurants in their current form, and we believe the plan of liquidation will allow the company to accomplish that task in the most efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the company intends to converts all of its assets into cash, resolve its debts, and then file a certificate of dissolution. Its stock (NYSE: LUB) would be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange at that point or possibly sooner according to the exchange’s rules.

While a slim possibility exists that a buyer could be found that would keep the Houston-based cafeteria chain whole — Luby’s also owns Fuddrucker’s — the more likely plan seems to be that the restaurants will close and the company’s real estate holdings and other assets will be sold. Still, the company argues that a buyer who might preserve the restaurants is possible.

I assume Fuddrucker’s will continue as an entity, just owned by some other conglomerate. As for Luby’s, well, as someone said, tastes changed but Luby’s didn’t. Life is like that sometimes, unfortunately. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the place that natives do, but I sure do know some folks that are broken up about this. Texas Monthly, Houstonia, and the Chron have more.

Census shenanigans halted for now

Good.

[On] Saturday, US District Judge Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order to stop Census Bureau officials from winding down door-knocking and online, phone, and mail response collection by September 30—a month early—writing that the shortened census timeline could cause “irreparable harm.”

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The US Census Bureau had originally planned to end their count by October 31, a date chosen to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic. But on August 3, the bureau announced that it would stop collecting census responses by the end of September, and was attempting to “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.” At the time, just 63 percent of households had responded. Immediately afterward, four former census bureau directors issued a public statement explaining that a shortened timeline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas of the country.” Later that month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, also reported that “compressed timeframes” in the 2020 census could undermine the overall quality of the census count.

Now, at least until a hearing on September 17, the Census Bureau may not take steps to wind down its counting operations, such as terminating field staff.

The Chron adds some detail.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Department attorney Alexander Sverdlov told Koh that any “anxiety” about the census was “not warranted” and that operations were shutting down only when 85% to 90% of residents in a particular locale had responded. He argued in a court filing that said the government’s “decisions on how and when to complete a census turn on policy choices that are unreviewable political questions.”

The population count is crucial for states’ U.S. House representation and the distribution of $800 billion in federal aid each year. Separately, President Trump is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, an action challenged by California and other states in multiple lawsuits.

Koh questioned the government’s explanations at Friday’s hearing and was equally skeptical in Saturday’s ruling.

The administration has insisted that moving the deadline up to Sept. 30 was necessary to deliver the census results to the president by Dec. 31, rather than by next April, under a previous timetable. But Koh said the Census Bureau’s deputy director, Albert Fontenot, “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau is ‘past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31.’” She said the bureau’s head of field operations made the same admission in May.

Koh also quoted Fontenot as saying, in a court filing Friday night, that the bureau has begun terminating its temporary field staff in areas that have completed their work, and it is difficult to bring them back. That underscores the need for a restraining order halting any further cutbacks until the legality of the one-month delay is resolved, she said.

See here for the background. Harris County, along with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, are among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Perhaps if we can wait to deliver the results to the President until, say, January 21, we can feel a bit more comfortable that they will get a proper review, and that the data is sufficiently accurate. Perhaps we could also then see about fixing anything that was clearly effed up thanks to the Trump team’s constant efforts at sabotage. If we are blessed with an all-Democratic government, we can pass a bill to allow statistical sampling, which would help a lot. There’s no reason to trust anything this administration has done with the Census, and every reason to give a new administration a chance to fix the more egregious errors. The Trib has more.