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Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court approves funds for new voting machines

Long awaited.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $54 million deal to replace the current eSlate machines with ones featuring touch screens, a paper backup and features that make voting more accessible for seniors and residents with disabilities.

The new machines allow voters to select candidates or ballots measures on a touchpad instead of the rotating wheel, now derided by critics as a clunky feature that some voters mistakenly have used to cast ballots for the wrong candidate.

After voters complete and review their ballots, the machines will print out the selections, at which point voters again can review their ballots for any erroneous choices. They then will take the printed ballots to an electronic ballot box that will record the votes and store the paper ballots, in case the election is called into question and needs to be audited.

“Really, the utility of the paper record is, instead of having to program our machines to spit out receipts, we are getting the record as the voter sees it, into a ballot box that, should we need to count or recount or pull something back later, we can pull it up,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said Wednesday.

The election results will be stored on two separate hard drives for each voting machine, one of which can only be accessed with a special key provided to Longoria’s office. The new safeguards are expected to provide stronger security than the current system, in which votes are recorded on mobile memory cards that are brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

Longoria also said the new machines may provide faster election results, as votes can only be tallied under the current system using an outdated computer processing software with slower processing speeds than what is widely available today. Harris County election nights have famously stretched well past midnight during previous elections due to the pace of the election results being uploaded.

[…]

Under the contract approved Tuesday, Hart will provide Harris County with 12,000 machines and an assortment of other election equipment, including voting booths and ballot boxes.

Among the other upgrades are what officials say will be a more robust voting system for residents with disabilities. Longoria described the existing setup as “primitive,” in which voters use red and green “paddles,” or buttons, that replace the scrolling wheel and enter button.

“Now you’ll have, essentially, a remote control attached to the machine that has directional arrows and multiple buttons, so that folks with a different kind of physical need will have the same access to voting,” Longoria said.

The elections administrator’s office will receive the first shipment of devices by March 1. Longoria and her staff will start familiarizing themselves with the machines and decide whether to use them for the May 2021 local elections. If they opt to wait, the machines would be in place for the March 2022 primaries.

“The really big deciding factor for me is, how long will it take to train all of our internal staff on these new machines to feel comfortable with them? And then the turnaround time for us to develop those training materials so that we can really safely and fairly train up the different clerks and judges that will have to use these on Election Day,” Longoria said.

See here for my previous update on this topic, here for a Twitter thread from the Election Administrator’s office, and here for their press release. I asked Isabel Longoria some questions about this when I interviewed her, but she was not yet in a position to discuss the details. From what we’ve seen, it sounds like the new machines have everything we’ve been wanting, and it all sounds pretty good to me. Other counties such a Tarrant use the same machines, so we can learn from their experience. It would be nice to have them in place for the May elections, but given that 2021 is an off year for the city, November will be a low-turnout affair that can serve as a test run as well. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what our new machines can do.

Precinct analysis: County Clerk 2020 and 2018

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

We weren’t supposed to have a County Clerk race on the ballot in 2020, but we did following the health-related resignation of Diane Trautman in May. That gave us a battle of Stan Stanart, former County Clerk whom Trautman had deposed in 2018, and Teneshia Hudspeth, former chief elections person under Stanart. Hudspeth won easily, and though her 835K total votes were on the lower end for Democratic countywide candidates, her 53.76% of the vote was pretty close to Trautman’s 54.60% from two years before. The 2018 election was a non-Presidential year, with record turnout for such a contest, and the 2018 Clerk race also featured a Libertarian candidate, so comparisons are a bit tricky. My advice is to look at Hudspeth’s percentages compared to Trautman’s. Here’s the 2020 race:


Dist  Stanart Hudspeth Stanart% Hudspeth%
=========================================
CD02  181,707  151,509   54.53%    45.47%
CD07  153,335  147,437   50.98%    49.02%
CD08   26,037   14,710   63.90%    36.10%
CD09   37,941  119,087   24.16%    75.84%
CD10  103,442   58,506   63.87%    36.13%
CD18   60,497  178,172   25.35%    74.65%
CD22   22,018   19,747   52.72%    47.28%
CD29   50,483   99,634   33.63%    66.37%
CD36   83,484   47,160   63.90%    36.10%
				
SBOE4 108,536  332,265   24.62%    75.38%
SBOE6 389,609  343,285   53.16%    46.84%
SBOE8 220,799  160,413   57.92%    42.08%
				
SD04   56,013   22,252   71.57%    28.43%
SD06   58,816  115,690   33.70%    66.30%
SD07  237,989  168,687   58.52%    41.48%
SD11   77,992   45,722   63.04%    36.96%
SD13   38,148  158,482   19.40%    80.60%
SD15  115,748  191,422   37.68%    62.32%
SD17  118,870  122,163   49.32%    50.68%
SD18   15,368   11,547   57.10%    42.90%
				
HD126  39,346   32,856   54.49%    45.51%
HD127  54,464   34,684   61.09%    38.91%
HD128  48,497   21,457   69.33%    30.67%
HD129  48,407   34,399   58.46%    41.54%
HD130  70,686   31,495   69.18%    30.82%
HD131  10,184   44,299   18.69%    81.31%
HD132  51,079   47,460   51.84%    48.16%
HD133  51,079   35,518   58.98%    41.02%
HD134  49,424   56,156   46.81%    53.19%
HD135  36,914   36,293   50.42%    49.58%
HD137  10,430   20,635   33.57%    66.43%
HD138  32,119   30,383   51.39%    48.61%
HD139  15,914   44,364   26.40%    73.60%
HD140   9,567   21,385   30.91%    69.09%
HD141   7,122   35,961   16.53%    83.47%
HD142  14,114   41,357   25.44%    74.56%
HD143  12,295   23,775   34.09%    65.91%
HD144  13,990   16,257   46.25%    53.75%
HD145  15,404   26,341   36.90%    63.10%
HD146  11,411   43,173   20.91%    79.09%
HD147  15,494   52,686   22.73%    77.27%
HD148  22,919   35,897   38.97%    61.03%
HD149  21,718   30,328   41.73%    58.27%
HD150  56,366   38,803   59.23%    40.77%
				
CC1    94,155  277,561   25.33%    74.67%
CC2   152,576  141,645   51.86%    48.14%
CC3   229,070  206,538   52.59%    47.41%
CC4   243,143  210,221   53.63%    46.37%
				
JP1    94,708  161,313   36.99%    63.01%
JP2    34,728   47,948   42.00%    58.00%
JP3    52,202   67,235   43.71%    56.29%
JP4   236,302  181,977   56.49%    43.51%
JP5   205,591  211,174   49.33%    50.67%
JP6     8,522   26,546   24.30%    75.70%
JP7    18,695   99,939   15.76%    84.24%
JP8    68,196   39,833   63.13%    36.87%

Nothing we haven’t seen before by this point. It’s possible Stanart did a little better than expected because of name recognition, but who can tell. The 2018 analysis was part of a package deal. Here’s the County Clerk’s race on its own:


Dist  Stanart Trautman  Gomez  Under Stanart%   Traut%  Gomez%
==============================================================
CD02  135,427  116,744  6,717  6,221   52.31%   45.09%   2.59%
CD07  116,383  116,488  5,648  6,706   48.79%   48.84%   2.37%
CD08   17,784   10,221    679    520   62.00%   35.63%   2.37%
CD09   23,329   93,625  2,504  2,376   19.53%   78.37%   2.10%
CD10   71,172   39,707  2,623  1,970   62.71%   34.98%   2.31%
CD18   39,159  138,311  4,892  4,087   21.47%   75.84%   2.68%
CD22   15,265   15,184    857    711   48.76%   48.50%   2.74%
CD29   30,313   82,449  3,916  2,627   25.98%   70.66%   3.36%
CD36   60,467   35,918  2,452  2,036   61.18%   36.34%   2.48%

SBOE6 287,300  269,837 14,477 15,045   50.26%   47.21%   2.53%

HD126  29,277   24,586  1,293  1,074   53.08%   44.58%   2.34%
HD127  41,017   25,198  1,634  1,260   60.45%   37.14%   2.41%
HD128  34,735   15,876  1,142    915   67.12%   30.68%   2.21%
HD129  35,567   26,799  1,739  1,582   55.48%   41.80%   2.71%
HD130  51,064   22,942  1,722  1,365   67.43%   30.30%   2.27%
HD131   6,110   34,855    864    717   14.61%   83.33%   2.07%
HD132  32,579   32,090  1,680  1,023   49.10%   48.37%   2.53%
HD133  40,721   28,089  1,552  2,192   57.87%   39.92%   2.21%
HD134  37,977   47,211  2,090  3,692   43.51%   54.09%   2.39%
HD135  26,584   27,712  1,379  1,033   47.75%   49.77%   2.48%
HD137   7,257   16,167    678    552   30.11%   67.08%   2.81%
HD138  23,336   23,515  1,257  1,100   48.51%   48.88%   2.61%
HD139  10,545   35,238  1,128    961   22.48%   75.12%   2.40%
HD140   5,269   17,569    722    490   22.36%   74.57%   3.06%
HD141   3,921   26,852    622    438   12.49%   85.53%   1.98%
HD142   8,579   30,125    850    662   21.69%   76.16%   2.15%
HD143   7,405   20,178    952    699   25.95%   70.71%   3.34%
HD144   8,949   13,629    786    450   38.30%   58.33%   3.36%
HD145   9,596   21,809  1,226    834   29.41%   66.84%   3.76%
HD146   8,082   34,044    931  1,065   18.77%   79.07%   2.16%
HD147  10,013   42,972  1,576  1,316   18.35%   78.76%   2.89%
HD148  15,587   29,671  1,907  1,695   33.05%   62.91%   4.04%
HD149  14,042   23,985    859    785   36.11%   61.68%   2.21%
HD150  41,087   27,535  1,699  1,354   58.43%   39.16%   2.42%

CC1    61,603  218,965  6,875  6,563   21.43%   76.18%   2.39%
CC2   105,901  114,124  6,772  5,028   46.69%   50.32%   2.99%
CC3   164,601  157,515  7,843  8,035   49.89%   47.74%   2.38%
CC4   177,194  158,043  8,798  7,628   51.50%   45.94%   2.56%

I included undervotes in the county candidates’ analyses in 2018 because I was trying to analyze the effects of straight ticket voting as well. As I said, if you compare just the Democratic candidates’ percentages, you see that Hudspeth and Trautman had fairly similar performances, with the drops we have noted before in some of the Latino districts. Trautman knocked it out of the park in HD134, which was more Republican in 2018. Hudspeth had among the higher scores this year in HDs 131 and 141. I fully expect she’ll build on her performance in 2022, when she will be the incumbent running for re-election, though as always the first question is what will the national atmosphere look like.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

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

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

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

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

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

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

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

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

This part puzzles me even more:

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

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

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

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

A few words about election security

Lisa Gray talks to my friend Dan Wallach about everybody’s favorite subject.

If I’m aiming to steal an election, what’s the best way to go about it? Are mail-in ballots the easiest?

If your goal is to steal an election, there are so many different things you could do. Really the question is, are you trying to be stealthy about it? Or are you perfectly OK with making a giant public mess? Because if you don’t mind making a mess, the easiest way to steal an election is to break the voter registration system — to cause long lines, to cause voters to give up and walk away.

But it would be totally obvious if that had happened. And at least as far as we know, it hasn’t happened. The other obvious way that you can break an election is, of course, with misinformation. If you can convince the voters to vote in a way different than they were originally planning — because of a conspiracy theory or whatever — that’s also an excellent way of manipulating the outcome of an election.

Manipulating voting machines in the tabulation process is actually a lot more work, especially if you want to do it subtly. And at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Are mail-in ballots inherently less reliable than votes counted on Election Day?

Once we have paper ballots, whether they’re paper ballots that are cast in person, or paper ballots that are returned through the mail, the security of that system is actually pretty good. I’m not as worried about ballot-box stuffing and things like that. The things that concern me more are when you have a system with no paper at all — which, of course, is how we vote here in Harris County.

This is probably the last year that Harris County will be using that electronic paperless voting system. We’ll see.

Probably the place where we’re seeing the most excitement with tight elections now is in Georgia. The state of Georgia used to use a paperless electronic system that would have been relatively straightforward to manipulate, if that was what you wanted to do.

But they’ve replaced it! The whole state of Georgia now votes using a “ballot marking device,” where you touch the screen, select your preferences, and then it prints a paper ballot. As long as Georgia voters actually bother to look at it, and say, “Yep, that’s who I was planning to vote for,” the risk of undetected tampering goes down significantly.

[…]

How should we handle future elections? Those eSlate machines have got to go. But what else, for American elections’ sake, do we need to do?

Let’s start with Harris County. Harris County is using a type of voting machine that they first purchased in the early 2000s. They had a warehouse fire in 2010, so all of our machines are actually quite a bit newer than that, because after the fire, they had to buy new ones.

Those are new versions of ancient tech? My adult kids voted for the first time in Harris County this year, and they were both astounded by what they called “1990s technology.” Those clunky dials! It’s like using a Blackberry in 2020.

It’s exactly like using a Blackberry in 2020. It’s time for these machines to be retired. Our previous county clerk Diane Trautman had said that that was her plan, and she’d started the process — vendors doing dog-and-pony shows, members of the community invited to show up and watch presentations. All of that was in process when COVID hit.

[Trautman resigned because of health problems, and Chris Hollins was an interim replacement.] Now we are going to have an appointed election administrator, Isabel Longoria, who handles voter registration and manages elections. So Longoria is going to be responsible for picking up where this all left off. I don’t know their timeline. I don’t know their plans. But definitely it’s time to move on from the eSlates.

I expect that they will be very interested in having a bigger vote-by-mail solution. The state may or may not make it easier for voters to vote by mail. That’s an unfortunately partisan process, even though it shouldn’t be. All Washington State, Oregon and Colorado vote by mail — 100% of the vote.

But Texas doesn’t believe in no-excuse vote by mail, so I expect that we’re also going to see new voting machines of some kind. Every new voting machine that’s worth buying prints a paper ballot of some sort. That is likely the direction that we’re headed.

There will be pricing issues and cost issues. There will be questions like, Does it support all of the languages that Harris County requires? Does the tabulation system do all the things that we need? Is the vendor going to give us a good price? All that is in play. This is as much about a large government procurement process as it is about voting in particular.

I expect that will all play out next year. They will announce a winner of the procurement, and then we’ll start seeing these new machines used in smaller elections, where there are fewer voters and there’s less attention being paid. In a smaller election, things can go wrong, and it won’t be the end of the world.

Most of this is familiar to us, from the swan song of the eSlate machines to the plans to get new voting machines for the 2021 elections, which will be an off year for city races, thus making it even smaller than usual. I’ll be keeping a close eye on what kind of machines we may get, as this will be the first major task of Isabel Longoria’s tenure as Election Administrator. Lisa and Dan also talk about the exemplary voting experience we had here in Harris County in 2020, which we all hope and expect will be the template going forward. Check it out.

The swan song for eSlate machines

We’re still using them for this election, as clunky and outdated as they are, but they’re on the way out.

Harris County may shatter turnout records with as many as 1.5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, the county clerk estimates.

It also has achieved a less desirable position, however — the county will be the largest jurisdiction in the United States that cannot audit its election results because it uses a voting system that does not produce a paper record.

Of all the paperless votes in the country, about 1 in 5 will be cast here, according to an analysis by the New York University Law School-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“If there’s some reason to cast doubt on the election outcome, there’s nothing independent of the software to turn back to with a paperless system,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the center’s election reform program. “All you can likely do is re-run the results and have the software come up with the same results as the previous time. I don’t think that’s great for voter confidence.”

[…]

Despite warnings from election security experts and an acknowledgment by past Republican and Democratic county clerks that new machines were needed, Harris County failed to follow the state’s other urban counties in doing so before 2020. Texas is one of 14 states that still permits paperless voting systems.

The county since 2002 has used the Hart InterCivic eSlate machine, remembered by many voters by its spinning wheel interface. It records votes on a mobile memory card which then is brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

[…]

Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham said he decided to make the switch after the Legislature in 2019 nearly passed a ban on paperless machines. Plus, his 13-year-old machines had begun to fail.

“They were having issues with the capacitors on the motherboard burning up,” Oldham said. “The last couple years, we were getting 15 to 20 of these things happening every election.”

Harris County failed to move as quickly, however. Both 2018 candidates for county clerk, Republican Stan Stanart and Democrat Diane Trautman, pledged to replace the aging eSlates.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with a machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said a few days after she won the election.

She initially had hoped to acquire the new machines in time for the 2020 presidential election — Houston even hosted a voting machine trade show this past July — but within months of taking office concluded the timeline was not feasible.

The county last December began soliciting vendor proposals, aiming to debut new machines in the May 2021 elections.

Launching a new voting system in a low-turnout election is wise because it allows county clerks to resolve inevitable problems with a wider margin for error, said Rice University professor of computer science Dan Wallach.

“Otherwise, you’re just inviting new system jitters making a mess when you really, really want smooth sailing,” Wallach said in an email.

At least we know what we’re getting with them. While it’s true that the 2018 candidates for County Clerk made promises that have not yet been fulfilled to replace the eSlates, Stan Stanart was first elected Clerk in 2010, so he could have moved sooner than that. Be that as it may, we’ll get new machines for next year. Expect there to be some serious activity in this department when the new elections administrator comes on board.

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.

The HCDE makeover

One more world to conquer in Harris County.

David Brown

The future looked bleak for Texas’ last remaining county education department in early 2019.

After years of state-level efforts to abolish the Harris County Department of Education, a new majority of trustees signaled they would take a more critical look at the agency’s inner workings and whether it still served the core function of supporting local school districts.

Less than a year later, the entire makeup of the board has changed. Now a 5-2 majority of HCDE supporters oversee the department and its $128 million annual budget, a majority that could grow after the November election.

The two board seats on this year’s ballot — two of the three at-large positions — are held by Republicans Don Sumners and Michael Wolfe, the remaining trustees who have been critical of the department in the past. Sumners is seeking re-election, and although Wolfe is not running for his old seat, his father, Bob Wolfe, is.

Sumners’ Democratic opponent is David Brown, an educator who works for Change Happens, a Third Ward-based nonprofit that provides mentoring, drug prevention and other services to low-income youth. Democrat Erica Davis, chief of staff for Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, is running against Wolfe. If Brown and Davis capture the two at-large positions, board president Eric Dick — who has opposed efforts to shut down the department — would be the lone remaining Republican trustee.

[…]

Erica Davis

In recent decades, the department has been the subject of frequent criticism of some state and local conservatives who call it an unnecessary bureaucracy that would better serve districts if it were dissolved and its assets were given to local schools.

Republicans who shared that belief gained control of the board after the 2018 midterm elections and were quick to exercise their new role. Former trustee Josh Flynn was named board president during his first meeting in January 2019. Minutes later, the board voted to scrap a contract with a lobbying firm that represented HCDE interests in Austin.

They voted the following month to change the composition of an ancillary board that issues bonds and oversees construction contracts. They asked the board attorney to investigate the department’s Education Foundation, then put an item on two meeting agendas to replace the same attorney with a representative from Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain’s law firm, an ally of the Republican trustees. The board ultimately kept its original lawyer after the item to remove her was tabled.

Tempers flared between the new majority and those who supported the agency. Trustee Eric Dick, the sole Republican on the board who supported HCDE, frequently exchanged terse words with the new majority, especially former President Flynn and Trustee Michael Wolfe. The tension came to a head after Dick reported that Wolfe had made sexual advances on a woman who had applied to become the board’s secretary, and allegedly attempted to blacklist her among Houston Republican groups after she turned down his advances.

After reviewing a third-party report on the allegations commissioned by the board, trustees voted to censure Wolfe in April 2019, and Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan launched an investigation into the allegations. Wolfe has denied the allegations, and the county attorney has yet to release any findings.

Ultimately, the board’s Republican majority was short-lived. Former Trustee George Moore resigned after moving out of Harris County in May 2019, and the board later appointed Democrat Amy Hinojosa to replace him. Flynn resigned in December that same year after his eligibility to run for the Texas House was questioned due to his position on the board. The board appointed Democrat Andrea Duhon to take Flynn’s place, firmly shifting the board majority.

“I have to tell you, it seems like it’s working like a well-oiled machine,” Duhon said. “It’s been fabulous not having to worry about someone coming in and trying to tear it all apart.”

Sumners, Bettencourt and other Republicans have blamed Flynn for the shift in power. Though Republicans outnumbered Democrats for most of 2019, Dick sided with the Democrats amid an ongoing feud with the Republican trustees, resulting in a 3-3 deadlock that left the board unable to appoint Moore’s replacement. Moore was barred from voting.

In December, however, Flynn skipped a meeting where trustees were set to appoint his and Moore’s replacements. That allowed Dick and the two Democrats to appoint Hinojosa and Duhon.

See here for some background. I had wondered how it was that a board with a Republican majority managed to appoint two Democrats as replacement for departing Republicans, thus turning a 5-2 GOP majority into a 4-3 Dem majority. Pretty hilarious, if you ask me. It’s only the second time in my memory that the Dems have had a majority on the HCDE Board. A brief history:

2006: All seven members are Republicans, after Dems failed to field a candidate in the Precinct 1 position (the incumbent, who had not drawn a primary challenger, withdrew at the last minute).

2008: 5-2 Republicans after Jim Henley and Debra Kerner win the two At Large positions that were on the ballot, as part of the initial Democratic breakthrough in Harris County. Kerner’s opponent in that election, by the way, was none other than Stan Stanart.

2012: Erica Lee wins the Precinct 1 position, and Diane Trautman wins the third At Large spot, thus giving the Dems a 4-3 advantage.

2014: Republicans take back the two At Large positions they lost in 2008 and go back up by a 5-2 margin on the Board. Michael Wolfe, who had lost in 2012, and Don Sumners are elected.

2016: No change in composition, but Sherrie Matula loses the Precinct 2 race by a whisker. Eric Dick is elected in Precinct 4.

2018: Still no change in composition. Danny Norris succeeds Erica Lee in Precinct 1, Richard Cantu succeeds Diane Trautman in the At Large position, and Josh Flynn defeats Andrea Duhon by less than 2,000 votes for the Precinct 3 spot. While Republicans maintain a 5-2 majority on the Board, they now have a majority of Board members who want to undermine what the Board is doing.

Late 2019, after the filing period for 2020 closes: George Moore (who had defeated Matula by less than 500 votes in 2016) resigns for personal reasons, and Josh Flynn resigns (after a bit of a kerfuffle with the county GOP) to pursue the nomination in HD138 (he would lose the primary). As described above, Amy Hinojosa and Andrea Duhon are appointed, giving the Dems a 4-3 majority again. With the Dems favored to win the two At Large seats back, they would have a 6-1 majority for next year. Hinojosa will be up for election in 2022, and Duhon in 2024.

So there you have it. There have been some attempts in the Lege to curtail the HCDE , and it won’t surprise me if there are bills to that effect filed in this session. Having a Dem House majority would block that. In the meantime, I don’t know what has gotten into Eric Dick, but I approve. Remember to vote in these races, they will be way down at the bottom of the ballot. Any chance you get to vote against Don Sumners, you owe it to yourself to take it.

State appeals court rules (mostly) against Libertarians in filing fee lawsuit

Here’s the story. It gets into the legal weeds, and I’m going to try my best to clear them out.

A state appellate court this week upheld a 2019 law that extended a requirement that candidates pay a filing fee or submit a petition to appear on the ballot to minor party candidates.

A district court found the fee was unconstitutional, siding with nine Libertarians who had sued, saying it was unreasonably burdensome. But the three-justice panel of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Tuesday sided with the state, saying the plaintiffs did not make a strong enough constitutional argument to waive the secretary of state’s sovereign immunity to civil suits.

The law at issue, House Bill 2504, lowered the amount of votes a party needed to get in a statewide election to retain a place on the ballot. But it also added a requirement that candidates nominated at a convention — such as those in the Libertarian and Green parties — rather than through a primary had to pay a filing fee or gather petition signatures in order to be on the ballot. Previously, only major party candidates had to pay those fees.

The law “imposes reasonable and nondiscriminatory restrictions that are sufficiently justified by the State’s interest in requiring candidates to show a modicum of support to guarantee their names on the general-election ballot,” Justice Meagan Hassan wrote. “These are the same restrictions imposed on major-party candidates with respect to their participation in the primary election.”

The ruling Tuesday will not affect Libertarian candidates on the ballot this year.

There are a couple of active lawsuits challenging the new filing fee/petition signature requirements from HB2504, this one in state court which I had not blogged about before and a federal lawsuit that as far as I know has not had a hearing yet. I gave the state lawsuit a mention at the end of this post, mostly to note that the requirement to pay the filing fees was in effect in Texas despite the original order from Judge Kristin Hawkins, as it had been superseded by the state’s appeal. This lawsuit was partly about that now-not-in-effect injunction that enjoined the collection of the filing fees, partly about whether Secretary of State Ruth Hughs could be properly sued over this, and partly about the constitutionality of the fees in the first place. Let’s go to the opinion to try to unpack things.

The trial court granted Appellees’ request for a temporary injunction and enjoined Hughs from enforcing section 141.041 and the related advisory. The trial court also denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction. Hughs filed separate appeals with respect to these decisions, which were consolidated into a single appeal.

For the reasons below, we affirm the trial court’s temporary injunction in part as modified and reverse and remand in part. We conclude the trial court erred insofar as it (1) denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041 and (2) improperly enjoined the enforcement thereof. We further conclude the trial court (1) properly denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the advisory and (2) did not abuse its discretion by temporarily enjoining the advisory’s enforcement in part.

First, the appeals court denied SOS Ruth Hughs’ claim that she was immune to being sued for this. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and then-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were also sued in their official capacities in the original petition, but they were not party to the appeal.

Second, the appeals court overturned Judge Hawkins’ ruling that the filing fees were unconstitutional. This was covered in the story and is the bulk of the opinion, which gets into some exceedingly mind-numbing detail. I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated layman for the purposes of reading and understanding legal writings, but boy howdy did my eyes glaze over in this part of the document. The bottom line is that the court concluded that the fees did not constitute an excessively burdensome requirement.

The matter of the injunction is where it gets a little tricky. Let’s skip ahead to the end, where that piece of business is addressed.

The trial court’s temporary injunction enjoins Hughs from enforcing section 141.041’s requirements at the time of the Advisory’s December 9, 2019 deadline or “at any other time.” We therefore construe the injunction to enjoin the enforcement of both section 141.041 and the Advisory.

We concluded above that sovereign immunity precludes Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041. Therefore, to the extent the injunction enjoins enforcement of section 141.041, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter the injunction.

Turning to the enforcement of the Advisory, […]

I’ll spare you a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to say that this means that while the law is constitutional and thus will not be enjoined, the enforcement of the law via the Secretary of State’s advisory that specified the minor parties’ need to collect filing fees or petitions was still in question. Let’s move up to the thrilling conclusion:

When injunctive relief is provided for by statute, we review the trial court’s decision on a temporary injunction application for an abuse of discretion. 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. We do not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court and may not reverse unless the trial court’s action was so arbitrary that it exceeded the bounds of reasonableness. Id.

As discussed above, we conclude that the Advisory conflicts with section 141.041 in part by impermissibly expanding the section’s requirements to all minorparty candidates seeking nomination at a convention. Considered in conjunction with Texas Election Code section 273.081, this conclusion supports the trial court’s finding that Appellees “are in danger of being harmed by a violation or threatened violation” of the Election Code. See Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 273.081. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by enjoining Hughs’s enforcement of the Advisory insofar as the Advisory required compliance with section 141.041’s fee/petition requirements by minor-party candidates who have not been nominated by the convention process. See 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. Candidates who ultimately secured their party’s nomination as a result of the convention process, however, must comply with section 141.041. The injunction thus is erroneous to the extent that it relieves candidates nominated by convention of any obligation to comply with section 141.041 at any time. Therefore, we modify the injunction’s language by deleting the bolded text from the following paragraphs:

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from
third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or any other time.

The bolding is in the original, where the appeals court is quoting from Judge Hawkins’ order establishing the injunction. What this says is that the SOS and Harris County were enjoined from enforcing the filing fee requirements at the time that the candidates were being placed on the ballot, but not forever. These candidates were in fact required to pay the filing fee or collect the petition signatures – again, because the court ruled those requirements were legal. That was essentially the status quo when the Democrats successfully defenestrated the Greens, and it is my interpretation that this means the Libertarians would have been equally vulnerable to such a challenge if the Republicans had timely fashion.

All of this is my reading, and I Am Not A Lawyer, so those of you who know better please feel free to point out my idiotic errors. As to what happens next, the plaintiffs may appeal to the Supreme Court – they did not comment about that in the story – and of course there remains the federal challenge, though based on the Ralph Nader experience of 2004, I would not be holding my breath. Use the next year-plus between now and the 2022 filing period to figure out how to pay the fees or collect the signatures, that’s my advice. The Statesman has more.

And the nominees are…

Teneshia Hudspeth

Yesterday was the Harris County Democratic Party CEC meeting, at which the nominees for the two positions that needed them were filled. The easy one was the second one, where Teneshia Hudspeth was unanimously selected. The way this process works is that any potential candidates have to be nominated by one of the precinct chairs. (You could nominate yourself, if you are a precinct chair yourself – Nat West did this in 2016 for the Commissioners Court Precinct 1 nomination – but that did not apply here.) Gayle Mitchell had previously announced her intent to seek this nomination, but as far as I could tell, she was not on the Zoom call, and no one spoke to nominate her. I was one of three people to speak in favor of Hudspeth’s nomination – as I said on the call, I’ve known Teneshia Hudspeth for years via correspondence with the County Clerk’s office, and I have a high degree of confidence in her abilities. She now gets to beat Stan Stanart in November, and who doesn’t look forward to voting against Stan Stanart again? She will have a unique set of challenges, which look to include oversight of the new Elections Administrator’s office. We talked about that and more in this interview I did with her. Congratulations to Teneshia Hudspeth, I look forward to voting for you again in November.

David Brown

The other position to fill was the nominee for HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon won the primary for that spot in March, but she had been appointed to fill the Position 4, Precinct 3 position in January following the resignation of Josh Flynn, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination in HD138. Three candidates were nominated for this position: David Brown, Obes Nwabara, and Jose Rivera, as was expected. Brown led the voting with 38%, followed by Nwabara with 35% and Rivera with 27%. The rules say that a majority is needed, so we went to a runoff, and there Brown prevailed with a 53-47 vote. The closeness of the vote was appropriate for a tough choice, as all three candidates were excellent and well-qualified. Brown, whose Q&A with me is here, now has the important job of knocking the ridiculous and execrable Don Sumners off the Board. Erica Davis is the nominee for Position 5, At Large, which is an open seat after fellow unqualified yahoo/all-around embarrassment Michael Wolfe decided to tun again for Justice of the Peace. Dems already have a majority on the HCDE Board now thanks to the appointment of Duhon, but this is a chance to take full control, and just make two huge upgrades in quality. Congratulations to David Brown, and I look forward to voting for you in November as well.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The county races in which the precinct chairs get to pick the nominees

There are two Harris County races on the ballot this year – one that was always going to be there, and one that was unexpected – in which Democratic precinct chairs will have the task of picking the nominees. As you know, that group includes me, and we’ll be doing it on August 15, shortly before the deadline to finalize the ballot. Let me tell you what I now know about the people who have expressed interest in these races.

Teneshia Hudspeth

First up is Harris County Clerk, the race we didn’t expect to have on our ballot this year. As you know, Diane Trautman resigned in May for health reasons, and Chris Hollins was sworn in as an interim Clerk after being appointed by Commissioners Court. Trautman’s term ends in 2022, however, so someone will have to run in November to complete her term, and Hollins will not be running for the job. Two people so far have emerged for the position. One is Gayle Mitchell, who lost in the 2014 primary to Ann Harris Bennett for the County Clerk nomination. I saw her post about this on Facebook, but can’t find that post any more. She’s a nice lady – you can listen to the interview I did with her here – but I don’t have much more to say about her. I’ve not seen or heard anything from her since the 2014 primary.

On Monday this week, Jasper Scherer wrote on Twitter that Teneshia Hudspeth, the current chief deputy clerk, has announced her intention to run for the position; Marc Campos had previously noted that she had filed a designation of Treasurer. You can see her press release, sent on Tuesday, here. Hudspeth immediately drew support from Sen. Borris Miles, Council Member Tiffany Thomas, and apparently former Clerk Trautman, if I’m reading her press release correctly. I can imagine one or two people who could jump into this race that I’d have to seriously consider, but barring that possibility I fully expect to support Teneshia’s nomination. She’ll do a great job.

(UPDATE: Trautman has since sent out an email, which I received, endorsing Teneshia Hudpseth’s candidacy.)

The other race is for HCDE Trustee At Large, Position 7, the one where Andrea Duhon, who was appointed to fill out Josh Flynn’s term in Position 4 but was already on the ballot there, won outright in March. Despite my belief that she could not withdraw from the November race, apparently she could because here we are picking a replacement nominee. (See, this is why I always remind you that I Am Not A Lawyer.) I am aware of four people competing for this slot:

David Brown and Obes Nwabara, who also ran in the March primary and finished behind Duhon.

Sonja Marrett, whose candidacy was noted to me by Andrea Duhon, who has endorsed her.

Jose Rivera, husband of former Justice of the Peace candidate Tanya Makany-Rivera, about whom Stace wrote on Monday.

I had a chance to talk to Rivera over the weekend. I’m pretty sure I had a brief conversation with David Brown during the primary campaign, but that was eight million years ago, so who can remember. I do not believe I have spoken to Nwabara yet, and I do know that I have not spoken to Marrett. I do not at this time have a preferred candidate for this position. Honestly, they all look well-qualified.

I will probably do an interview with Teneshia Hudspeth after the runoff. I don’t know that I’ll have time to talk to the four HCDE candidates, but I may write up a Q&A for them. If you have any insight as to these folks, I’ll be glad to hear it. And now you know everything I know about these two races.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you missed having Stan Stanart to kick around?

Well then, I have good news for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

On picking a new County Clerk

Stace has some thoughts.

Diane Trautman

I’m of the opinion that the Democratic majority on the Commissioner’s Court should make a strong appointment of someone who will be the incumbent, making it clear that there is no need for a possible free-for-all at the precinct chair level.

We elected our County Judge and our Commissioners, while most of us cannot even find a link on the Party website to find our own precinct chair so that we can lobby for whom we want them to vote. Either process is hardly democratic as the voters are left out of the process. I’d rather go with whom our top leaders choose and have the precinct chairs basically ratify it so we can move forward. Wishful thinking? Maybe.

Some may opine that appointing as interim one of the professionals already in the County Clerk’s office to run the 2020 election and be a placeholder while allowing a candidate chosen by the precinct chairs to run full-time is the solution. And that’s a good argument. But I think we should have a candidate who can show that they can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously. I think it’s more of a confidence builder for us voters when we see that our candidates can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Either way, we’ll see what happens. I already see suggestions on my Facebook feeds about who should run and about diversity on the ballot. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but these things can take a turn for the ugly real quick. And that’s another reason why I’d like to see the Judge and Commissioners lead on this one.

See here for the background. As a precinct chair who will be among those lucky duckies that gets to put a nominee on the ballot for 2020, let me say that I agree with Stace’s position that we should want a candidate who “can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously”. I hope to have a better feel for this once people start throwing their hats into the ring, but I agree that a Clerk who can plan for and run an election well and who is also able to tell Ken Paxton to get stuffed while giving clear direction on these matters to the Court, the County Attorney, and the government relations crew at the county, is someone I want to see in that job.

How we get there is of less importance. If Commissioners Court – specifically, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia; I don’t expect either of the other two to provide any productive input but will hear it out if they do – says that they just want someone who can carry out the necessary electoral duties for 2020 and leave the politics up to the political people, that’s fine by me. If instead they make a strong statement about wanting the same kind of qualities as discussed here in the next Clerk and appoint someone they believe embodies those qualities, I will be more than happy to endorse that selection for the November ballot, if I agree that they got it right. I’m happy to be led by them on this matter, as long as they do lead us in the right direction. I reserve the right as part of the body that makes this selection to maintain my own counsel.

To be sure, this kind of process can get ugly in a hurry. This may be the best chance any Democrat has to win one of these offices now that there are no more Republicans to oust and we have to fight among ourselves to win. Having the Democratic members of Commissioners Court come out in unison behind a well-qualified candidate that they would like to continue working with after this November would make this a lot easier. We’ll see what they decide to do.

Meanwhile, Campos has one piece of advice:

The Commissioners Court will pick an interim County Clerk and sometime this summer the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee will select a nominee to place on the November ballot. The Commissioners aren’t going to listen to Commentary, but I hope they pick a female. If they pick a male and the male ends up getting the Executive Committee’s nod, he will win this November but get knocked off in the 2022 Democratic Party Primary by a female sure enough. Dudes need not apply.

For sure, that can happen. I will just say, 2022 will be its own election, with a different context and likely smaller turnout due to the lack of a Presidential race. It’s certainly possible that the robust candidate we hope to pick this year will get knocked off in 2022 by someone no one has heard of today. I will just say that we are not completely powerless to prevent such an outcome – I’ve been talking about the need to do a better job of promoting quality candidates at the statewide level for a couple of cycles now, following recent debacles in various downballot low-profile primaries. The same prescription holds true here, with a combination of financial support to allow a visible campaign and visible support from the elected leaders who have as much of a vested interest in having the best person possible to run elections as the rest of us do. Pick the best possible person, then support that person going forward. It’s not that complicated.

Those are my thoughts at this time. Feel free to tell me whose name you are hearing for the job and how you think I should approach this when the precinct chairs get together (virtually, I assume) to formalize it.

A poll of poll workers

A bit of good news, and a bit of a warning, here.

Harris County poll workers seem willing to participate in this fall’s presidential election, even amid the pandemic, but voters are more reluctant, according to results from a recent Rice University survey.

Poll workers here — regardless of party affiliation — were game to show up if conditions are safe enough. However, registered voters across the political spectrum were more reluctant about in-person voting even with safeguards in place, according to a Rice University study conducted between March 27 and May 4.

“What was surprising to us was how many poll workers were committed to working the polls with the caveat that they wanted protective gear, Plexiglass screens and Q-tips (to cast votes on machines). They wanted to do in-person voting with protection,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor who ran the survey funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Initiative with colleagues from the university’s psychology, anthropology and computer science departments.

[…]

Nearly 80 percent of poll workers said they were likely to help out in November at sites that observed social distancing guidelines and provided personal protective equipment. Poll staffers were were less enthusiastic about outdoor or drive-thru voting scenarios, according to the Rice findings. Many election workers said they relied on the seasonal income.

Voters’ responses lined up more predictably based on their age, party and gender. Democrats, women and people over 65 opted for potential remote voting — drive-thru, drop-off, mail-in or online options. Republicans, men and voters under under 65 were more willing to cast ballots in person.

More than 30 percent of Democrats said were unlikely to vote in person with nothing but social distancing to protect them, versus 9 percent of Republicans. A fourth of women voters were reluctant to vote in person, compared to 14 percent of men. Among voters over 65, who are at greater risk if exposed to the virus, 27 percent said they probably wouldn’t vote even with protections in place; whereas, 18 percent of voters under 65 said they were averse to voting under those circumstances.

You can see a copy of the poll report here. As the story notes, the Harris County Clerk is already gearing up for more mail ballots and other protective measures for the July and November elections. The challenge may be a little greater now with the forthcoming resignation of County Clerk Diane Trautman, but that shouldn’t complicate things too much. Given the concerns about poll workers, most of whom are over 60, I’m pleasantly surprised to see their willingness to work this election. That says a lot both about their dedication, and their faith that the county will do a good job of making their job as safe as possible.

The partisan split in willingness to vote in person is a bit alarming, but let’s keep three things in mind. One is that the last picture everyone has of voting is the fiasco in Wisconsin, which I daresay has people justifiably spooked. I feel reasonably confident that election officials in the state do not want their county to be the poster child for that kind of experience in November, so I have faith there will be plenty done to ameliorate the concerns. I hope that the July primary runoffs will help alleviate some worry as well. Two, that cohort of people who are most reluctant about voting in person are the people who absolutely and without question already have the right to vote by mail, and that’s the voters who are 65 or older. The HCDP has been quite good at getting mail ballots out to their voters in recent elections, and I feel confident they’re up to that task for this year as well. I would also expect there to be a lot of messaging to voters, from the county and from parties and candidates, about voting by mail. And three, we still may get a much broader vote by mail program for the state, in one of the lawsuits that have been filed by the TDP or the one filed by younger voters on federal age discrimination claims. We now know more about where people are for this election. We just need to act on it.

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to resign

This was unexpected, to say the least.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman will resign May 31 due to health concerns, she said Saturday afternoon.

Trautman, 70, steps down just 16 months into her first term. She defeated incumbent clerk Stan Stanart in 2018.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties,” Trautman said in a statement. She declined to answer questions.

Commissioners Court will appoint an interim clerk to serve until November, when a new clerk is elected. The Democratic and Republican parties will each put forth a nominee.

During her brief tenure, Trautman’s signature success was the implementation of county voting centers, which for the first time allowed residents to visit any polling place on Election Day. County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised that effort and Trautman’s dedication to the job.

“Dr. Trautman embodies the spirit of the community she has served,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In her brief time as County Clerk, Dr. Trautman has fought to make it easier for citizens to participate in elections and make their voices heard.”

You can see a copy of her press release, which hit my mailbox at 6 PM last night, here. I’m still a little stunned, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if she will be just the first in line to step down over health and safety concerns. Elected officials tend to be older, and we have seen multiple stories of them having come down with COVID-19. A quick google search turned up three examples of state representatives who have died as a result of the disease. In that regard, it’s honestly a little surprising we haven’t seen more elected officials do the same.

As her resignation is official on May 31, I assume there will be some kind of application process for the interim Clerk. Whoever that is will have to continue the preparations for more mail ballots as well as making in-person voting as safe as possible, both for the voters and the poll workers. No pressure, right? I presume the nominee to replace her on the November ballot will be picked by the precinct chairs, as we did with Commissioner Ellis and the three judges in 2016. That will add a level of excitement to the next CEC meeting, which is already going to be a big deal since the March one was postponed. I’m sure I’ll begin hearing from hopefuls in short order. I do not envy whoever it is at the HCDP who will be tasked with organizing this meeting, which I’m going to guess will have to be done remotely, unless we all somehow feel confident about packing several hundred mostly older folks into the IBEW hall one day next month. This is going to be all kinds of fun. We’ll get it done one way or another. In the meantime, my thanks to Diane Trautman for her service, and my best wishes for a healthy post-County Clerk life.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court has formed a working group to review Harris County’s shift to voting centers and examine what effect it had on hours-long lines at the polls on Primary Day, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called unacceptable.

During an at-times contentious discussion with County Clerk Diane Trautman during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session, Ellis questioned whether she had become too focused on county-wide voting centers, her signature initiative since taking office last year.

Ellis noted that the March primary was the second election overseen by Trautman that had problems. In last November’s municipal elections, the county clerk did not post full voting results for nearly 12 hours. Trautman blamed the delay on a last-minute directive from the secretary of state that forced Harris County to change its vote counting method; that directive, however, came out weeks before Election Day.

“I’d hate for a third one; because at some point, the discussion will have to be held, are voting centers worth it if you have all these unintended consequences?” Ellis said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was surprised to learn, just days before the primary, that nearly two-thirds of polling sites would be in Republican commissioner precincts. She said that was “functionally discriminating” against Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 on Election Day.

Trautman countered that the voting sites were set by an agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Hidalgo was unsatisfied with that response. She said if Trautman had been more forthcoming about potential voting problems, and asked for more resources from the county, Commissioners Court would have tried to accommodate.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve been nothing but supportive of your guys’ effort to expand access to the vote.”

More than 50 counties in Texas use voting centers, including Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant, according to the secretary of state. November will be the first general election in Harris County to use the system, when more than 1 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

Ellis said he may not have supported the creation of voting centers had Trautman explained how the switch could affect primary elections.

Trautman called the election “a very sad night” for voters and pledged to do better. The working group formed this week will include a representative from each court member’s office, as well as county clerk staff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’d like to see a broader group involved in that working group, but if they solicit public input I’ll be satisfied with that. People like the voting centers, and there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be fixable, but we need to really understand what happened and then do what it takes to deal with it. It’s not rocket science but it is a commitment. And Judge Hidalgo is right, better communication from the Clerk’s office is going to be a vital part of this effort. Let’s get this going so we can all feel confident about November.

Trautman apologizes for the long lines

A very good start.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman is taking “full responsibility” for the long lines and wait times that bogged down election night voting and forced some voters to wait more than six hours to cast their ballots.

In a statement released Friday, Trautman, the Democrat who oversees elections in Harris County, apologized to voters affected by the excessively long lines experienced at voting sites serving mostly black and Hispanic communities and said her office would reevaluate how to distribute voting machines across the county.

“It is clear that the history of marginalized communities being left behind in the voting process has led to polling deserts in areas of Harris County,” Trautman wrote. “I believe that we have made some strides, but we still have work left to do.”

[…]

On Friday, Trautman said her office had done “the best with what we had” but committed to rethinking voting machine allocations. In a previous interview with The Texas Tribune, Trautman indicated the county would likely try to purchase additional equipment for the November election.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the full statement. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a vocal critic of the lines on Tuesday, reacted positively to the Trib story, which is a good sign. Again, I think the main thing here is to solicit feedback from as many people and organizations involved in the process as possible, and really listen to their input and make a plan to implement as much of it as reasonably possible. I also think the HCDP and the many clubs and activist groups should think long and hard about what they can do to assist in this as well. We all have a stake in the outcome, after all.

One thing to keep in mind for November is that historically, in the even-numbered years, the share of turnout in early voting is much higher than it is in other elections, and much higher than the share of Election Day voting:


Year     Mail    Early    E-Day   Early%
========================================
2008   67,612  678,449  442,670    62.8%
2010   55,560  392,140  351,288    56.0%
2012   76,090  700,982  427,100    64.5%
2014   71,994  307,288  308,736    55.1%
2016  101,594  883,977  353,327    73.6%
2018   98,709  767,162  354,000    71.0%

That said, that’s still a lot more people voting on Election Day than we had this Tuesday. Fortunately, there will be many more E-Day polling locations, and no restrictions on the machines. As such, to a great extent and barring any unforeseen catastrophes, the problem will largely take care of itself. That of course is not the point. Having the November election run smoothly and without this kind of problem is a necessary condition to restore faith in the Clerk’s office, but it’s not sufficient. Demonstrating in word and deed that the Clerk understands the problem and has a well-thought out plan that the community believes in to fix it, that’s what we need. Diane Trautman took steps towards that on Friday. New let’s keep it going. The Chron has more.

Legislative hearings on those long lines coming

More scrutiny.

After excessive voting lines on Super Tuesday forced Texans to wait for up to six hours to vote, state lawmakers are directing their attention toward challenges voters faced in trying to cast a ballot for the presidential primary election.

The Mexican American Legislative Caucus on Thursday announced it would hold a joint hearing this month with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and another nonpartisan caucus to hear from election officials, experts and voters affected by long lines and other issues at the polls.

“Texas must quickly fix the problems encountered by voters during Primary Election Day so that we do not see a repeat of these failures during the November General Election,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, the Dallas Democrat who chairs MALC, said in a statement. “We received reports of limited polling locations, workers and machines, ridiculously long lines, equipment malfunctions and elections website failures.”

You know what I think. I’m in favor of anything that will lead to more transparency and and honest assessment of what happened and what can be done about it. It’s entirely possible that I’m way off base in my perspective and that there were a lot of things happening on Tuesday that I don’t know about. Well fine then, let’s hear what those things were so we can figure out how to fix them. Let’s hear from the people who were affected, let’s hear from the people who advocate for those people, and let’s hear from the people whose job it is to put on an election that doesn’t require this kind of endurance from anyone. You can’t fix a problem until you diagnose it and understand its root causes. Let’s get to that.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

Primary Day voting information

From the inbox:

On Super Tuesday, March 3, eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at any of the 401 voting centers across the county. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For the first time in Harris County, there will be both Democratic and Republican polls at all voting sites.

“Although there are a lot of races on the ballot, I encourage everyone to always vote all the way down the ballot.” added Trautman. “Remember, you can bring a sample ballot, notes, or an endorsement card into the voting booth with you.”

Voters can access individual sample ballots for both parties, find polling locations, and use the wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. The wait time feature, allows users to find voting centers and get an idea of what the lines look like. This gives voters the option of choosing a convenient location with little or no wait time.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office also reminds registered voters to make sure they have an acceptable form of identification when they head out to the polls. Click here for list of acceptable ID.

Winners of the primary elections will move on to the general election on Tuesday, November 3. If the primaries end in a runoff, the 2020 Primary Runoff Elections will be held on May 26. The last day to register to vote for the runoffs is April 27, 2020.

Unofficial Election Day results will be posted on www.HarrisVotes.com as they come in on election night. Official results will be posted after the canvass is completed.

You can see the list of polling locations here, and the interactive map is here. Remember that map only shows twenty locations at a time, so enter your address to easily see the locations near you. Any location works for either party. It should be a busy day – like, more votes cast on Tuesday than in the entire 2015 Mayoral race – but the map should give an indication of how busy each location is, so choose accordingly. I will of course be following developments and report it all out beginning on Wednesday. Happy voting!

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

County to seek new voting machines

About time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to seek vendor proposals for new voting machines.

The clerk’s office plans to issue a request for proposal for a new voting system this month. An evaluation committee composed of county government officials will vet proposals and recommend a model by August 2020, according to a timeline Trautman provided.

“We did establish a community advisory community and met with them, and we received written and online feedback,” Trautman said. “We also had an election machine vendor fair where the community came out … the next step is to start the RFP process.”

The clerk’s office plans to purchase the new machines by the end of 2020.

After training election judges and staging demonstrations for the public, Trautman plans to debut the devices in the May 2021 elections. Trautman initially had explored the idea of buying new machines in time for the November 2020 general election, which could see a record number of voters because it is a presidential year, but concluded that timeline was not feasible.

Rolling out the machines in a low-turnout election would allow elections officials to more easily address any problems that arise, she said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged Trautman to look for ways to decrease wait times at polling sites in the 2020 general election. Since the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting after the 2018 election, a time-saving method 76 percent of Harris County voters used that November, officials across the state worry future elections would feature long lines to cast ballots.

“I just want to reiterate my commitment to you to support work to make those lines shorter and fast, and anything we need to do for these 2020 elections, given that we still use these old voting machines,” Hidalgo said.

Security, ease of use, and some form of paper receipt should be the top priorities. Look to Travis County for some ideas – as with voting centers, having Michael Winn on staff will surely help with that. Those voting centers are intended to help with the long lines – having extended hours and more locations during early voting helps, too – and maybe we could remind some folks that they have the ability to vote by mail, too. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the vendor proposals.

People liked the voting centers

They’re great, so of course they do.

Diane Trautman

Half of Harris County voters who turned out Nov. 5 cast ballots outside of their home polling places, taking advantage of a new program that lets citizens vote at any Election Day polling place rather than only their assigned precincts.

The move to “voting centers” was a key plank in Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s campaign for the office last year, and this month’s election was the first time it was used on a wide scale.

Nearly 17 percent of the county’s 2.3 million registered voters cast ballots earlier this month, far more than the 4 percent turnout last May in a trial run of the voting-center approach, which Trautman’s office calls “Vote Your Way.”

Prior to last May, Harris County residents could cast ballots at any one of dozens of locations during early voting but were required to visit polls in their home precincts on Election Day.

Trautman said the benefits of the change are clear. In November 2018, she said, 2,500 voters showed up at polling places other than their assigned precincts on Election Day and had to cast provisional ballots that likely were not counted.

“This year there was no wrong location,” said Trautman, a Democrat. “One voter replied to us (on social media) and said, ‘I was just out jogging by West Gray and decided to go vote.’ It’s where your day takes you is where you can wind up voting. You see the signs out and you just go in and vote.”

[…]

A Houston Chronicle analysis of voting data shows that 52 percent of Election Day voters cast ballots at a location other than the polling place associated with their home precincts. Setting aside votes from the 265 precincts that had no home polling site cuts that figure to 46 percent.

Among the 747 polling places on Nov. 5 were roughly 50 early-voting locations that Trautman left open on Election Day, assuming voters would prefer familiar sites.

That hunch was right: Of the busiest 35 polling places on Election Day, 28 were early-voting locations. The busiest polling place — the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Montrose, which recorded 1,625 votes on Election Day — typically is the busiest location during early voting.

The trend did produce some counterintuitive results: Though voters could cast ballots anywhere, citizens’ preferences for familiarity left some needlessly waiting in line.

Of the 1,800 votes cast after the polls closed at 7 p.m. — the ballots count as long as voters stay in line — 63 percent were cast at early-voting sites, led by West Gray, Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Spring Branch, and Sunnyside Multi-Service Center.

You can see that analysis here. The experience of people preferring some locations even if they have to wait is one that other counties with voting locations share, and as Bob Stein notes later on, they’re fine with it because they’re voting where they want to. That makes sense, because the voting location most convenient to you may be the one near where you work, or on your way home from work, or some other place that is not in your precinct (never mind that not all precinct locations are available in many elections). I can’t emphasize enough how great it is to not have people miss out on having their votes count because they went to the wrong precinct location. It’s weird that we even have to talk about this, because in a world built for convenience and ease of use, we are totally unaccustomed to the idea that voting should be easy and convenient. Well, now it is in Harris County. That’s pretty damn awesome.

Early voting for the 2019 runoffs begins tomorrow

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the December 14 Joint Runoff Election begins Wednesday, November 27, halts for Thanksgiving break, and resumes December 2-10. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Sunday, December 8, when they will open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. On Election Day, December 14, the polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The deadline to apply for a ballot by mail (received, not postmarked) is Dec. 3.

Harris County will open 33 polling locations during early voting, and 385 on Election Day. Registered voters can vote in the runoff election even if they did not vote in November. A total of 389,494 people voted in the November 5th election out of the more than 2.3 million registered voters in Harris County.

“We remind voters that they do not have to go to an assigned polling location in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman. “With countywide polling, they can cast their ballots at any voting center near their home, work, school, or wherever they may be during Early Voting and on Election Day.”

On the ballot are races for Houston Mayor, city council members, Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College board members, and City of Bellaire council members. The State of Texas has set January 28, 2020 as the runoff date for the House District 148 Special Election. Early voting for that election is January 20-24, 2020.

“We truly hope that all registered voters exercise their right to vote,” added Dr. Trautman. “Every voice matters, please be proactive and remember you can now vote YOUR way.”

Harris County voters can find individual sample ballots, polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. Mobile phone users can text VOTE to 1-833-937-0700 to find the nearest voting center.

District B will also not be on the ballot. You can find the map of early voting locations here – remember that this is City of Houston, HISD, HCC, and City of Bellaire only, so that’s why the farther-out locations are not open. The interactive map is here. Info for Fort Bend folks is here. Remember that the next EV day is Monday, December 2, and after that it’s a normal schedule. Happy voting!

The County Clerk’s plan for the runoff

Things should be back to normal, and those of us who have to know the final results before we go to bed will get a little more sleep.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday said poll workers will drive electronic ballot boxes to the downtown counting center directly in hopes of speeding up vote counting during next month’s runoff elections.

The move comes a week after the clerk’s office was unable to fully report unofficial returns from the Nov. 5 elections until after 6 a.m. the next day.

Instead of waiting for constable deputies to pick up electronic ballot boxes from 10 sites around the county, Trautman told Commissioners Court that election judges will drive the boxes from roughly 300 voting centers to a central counting location. That represents a step back in how the county has counted and reported results on election night.

In recent elections, the office under former County Clerk Stan Stanart, used four relay sites to transmit results to the central counting center via phone line and modem.

Trautman’s plan was to use 10 such relay sites and transmit the results via the county’s intranet system. Trautman had used the same plan in the May elections and the Harris County Attorney’s office had concluded it was permitted by the Texas Election Code.

She was forced to change the plan, however, after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said it would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet.

See here for the background. The expectation is that we’ll get results more or less as we’ve seen them before, usually about 80% of precincts by midnight. I find all this a bit annoying since there was nothing inherently insecure about the electronic transfer plan they had in place, and used in May. As we know, the Secretary of State had no complaints when Stan Stanart was transmitting results via modem, which isn’t as secure as a VPN. Clearly, we need to add this to the list of Laws We Need To Change When Democrats Are Finally In Control, because there’s no incentive for Republicans to help out the big Democratic counties. Anyway, expect 75% less whining on Twitter on December 14, at least related to election night returns. Assuming we do get back to normal, people will forget about this.