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SCOTX upholds Abbott’s limit on mail ballot dropoff locations

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

In what’s expected to be the final ruling on the matter, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to only one drop-off location for voters to hand deliver their absentee ballots during the pandemic.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the all-Republican court, is the final outcome in one of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenged Abbott’s order from early this month. A federal appeals court also sided with the Republican governor in an earlier ruling, overturning a lower court’s decision.

The state lawsuit argued that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand-delivery locations, and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution. The suit was filed in Travis County by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group and a voter.

In their opinion, the justices wrote that Abbott’s order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

See here for the previous update. In a narrow and technical sense, the Supreme Court is correct. Abbott did in fact expand voting options with his original order, which not only added that extra week to early voting but also allowed for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period. State law only allows for that on Election Day, one of many problems that will need a legislative fix in the near future. But we all know that the purpose of his amended order, more than two months after Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had announced his plan to have dropoff locations at all 12 County Clerk offices, and several days after people began using those locations, was to issue a rebuke to Hollins for having the nerve to innovate like that, and to throw a bone to the howling nihilists in his own party that were attacking him for taking any step to make voting easier. The limit served no legitimate purpose, and was done in haste and with politics in mind. It is what it is at this point, and as with every other ad hoc obstacle thrown in our path, the voters have adjusted. We’ll be coming for you soon, Greg. The Chron has more.

Not everyone will be sending in their mail ballot

I get this.

Samina Mirza had read enough in the news about U.S. Postal Service delays that she decided there was no way she’d trust the mail to deliver her ballot to Harris County election officials on time.

The 70-year-old retired nonprofit staffer had originally planned to drop off her ballot at a location near her home in Katy, until Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation limiting counties to just one drop-off site.

“I wasn’t going to drive 25 miles to downtown Houston to use the dropbox because the nearest one was taken away, so I said ‘OK that’s fine, I’ll take a chance and just vote in person,’” said Mirza, who voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president.

Mirza is one of about 32,000 voters in Harris County and almost 9,600 in Bexar County who had received a mail-in ballot but chose to instead vote in person as of Wednesday — and there’s still a week and a half left of early voting to go. That’s about 13 percent and 9 percent of all voters who received mail ballots in each county, respectively.

About 759,000 Harris County residents had voted early in person by Wednesday and about 115,000 had done so by mail. In Bexar County, about 326,000 had voted in person and about 70,000 by mail.

“Since there are more people voting by mail in general, it does make sense that some people might change their mind for whatever reason and decide to vote in person,” said Roxanne Werner, Harris County spokeswoman. “Some people may have applied months ago, and with news about USPS and general situations changing, they may have decided to vote in person.”

[…]

Some who switched to in-person voting, like Mirza, cited concerns about the reliability of the mail. Others said they felt attached to their habit of in-person voting. Others still felt more reassured about the safety of the polling places with the longer early voting period, and after observing early voting procedures adapted for the pandemic.

The bottom line for all of the voters, though, was that in a high-stakes election that’s drawing record numbers of Texans to the polls, they didn’t want to take a chance that their vote would not count.

Still, it’s putting an extra burden on poll workers who are already stretched thin handling high turnout and trying to manage wait times that increase potential exposure to the virus.

Well, yes. That was one of the reasons why election administrators were encouraging people to vote by mail in the first place. Not that any of our fake fraud-obsessed Republican leaders cared. Had Harris and other counties been allowed to have more than one mail ballot dropoff location, that would have also worked. But as someone once said, it is what it is. At least these folks will still be voting – as we have observed, the harder the Republicans have made it to vote, the more determined everyone seems to be. Shouldn’t have to be this way, and someday we will make it better, but for now this is where we are.

If you received a mail ballot – not just an application, but an actual mail ballot – you must bring it with you and turn it in if you decide to vote in person. Your vote will be provisional otherwise. No big deal, people do this, just bring it with you. Or fill it out and mail it in (quickly!) or drop it off. Just make sure you vote.

SCOTX reinstates Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff location limit

They can move fast when they want to, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial order to limit Texas counties to one mail-ballot drop-off site was allowed to remain in effect Saturday by the Texas Supreme Court.

The court blocked a previous appellate court ruling that had briefly struck down Abbott’s order, which was widely decried by voting rights groups as a voter-suppression tactic. The lawsuit to overturn Abbott’s order is still pending.

In Harris County, more than 1 million voters have cast ballots during early voting, shattering previous records. Multiple drop-off sites had been set up for voters until Abbott issued his order, which he said would “stop attempts at illegal voting.”

State District Judge Tim Sulak had previously ruled that Abbott’s order would “needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections” and undermine the constitutionally protected rights of residents to vote, “as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”

Less than 24 hours after the Third Court of Appeals reinstated the district court ruling that had halted Abbott’s order. Clearly, SCOTX does not have a “we close at 5” mentality. It should be noted that this is not the end of the line. From the Statesman:

Acting soon after receiving an emergency appeal on Gov. Greg Abbott’s behalf, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order Saturday that temporarily barred counties from opening more than one drop-off site for mail-in ballots.

The court order keeps in place Abbott’s 3½-week-old proclamation that barred multiple drop-off locations that had opened in several counties, including Travis County, until the Supreme Court can determine the legality of Abbott’s limit.

With an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 3 election, the court also set tight deadlines, requiring legal briefs in the case to be filed before 5 p.m. Monday.

A ruling could come as soon as Monday night, though the Supreme Court gave no indication when it might act.

In theory, SCOTX could issue a ruling on the appeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we could get a few days of having multiple dropoff locations if the lower court order is upheld. Not great, but better than nothing. I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim, but it’s possible, and this is the best case scenario. At least you know what to hope for.

In practical terms, this means very little at this point. Very few people had ever used mail ballot dropoffs before. Existing law only allows for them to be used on Election Day – Abbott’s executive order extended that to all of early voting, which is an improvement even if his subsequent order limits it to a significant degree. Voting by mail is limited to begin with, and the vast majority of that small universe mailed their ballots in. Allowing people to drop them off at one of twelve locations instead of just one was an innovation, one of many that County Clerk Chris Hollins pioneered, and it was a welcome one in this year of COVID chaos, but losing it is more of an inconvenience than an impediment.

All that said, there is zero justification for Abbott’s order. People who wanted to drop off their mail ballots still had to go to an official County Clerk location, hand their ballot to an election judge, and show ID to have their ballot accepted. Fears of “fraud” and professions of “protecting election integrity” are empty shibboleths, the “thoughts and prayers” of vote suppression. Abbott imposed this limit as a sop to the extremists in his party who were already mad at him for adding an extra week to early voting. Hollins’ innovation made voting easier and more convenient. Abbott’s order made it harder and less convenient. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve said this before, but I firmly believe that a large majority of people like easier and more convenient voting, and support efforts to make it happen. There are lots of things the Democrats should un on in 2022. To me, this needs to be one of the big criticisms of Abbott – and Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton, and every single member of the Supreme Court – in that election. Being on the side of “easier and more convenient” is the side to be on.

Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

Because of course they did. Why would you have expected anything else?

In a ruling issued late Monday night, a federal appeals court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that limited counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by President Donald Trump, rejected arguments from civil and voting rights groups that claimed Abbott’s order suppressed voting rights by making it harder to cast a ballot, particularly for elderly and disabled voters who are the most likely to use mail-in balloting.

In reality, the judges said, Abbott expanded voting options by suspending a state law that allows mail-in ballots to be hand delivered only on Election Day — a July 27 order that Abbott merely refined on Oct. 1 by closing multiple ballot drop-off sites in Travis and three other large counties, the panel said.

“That effectively gives voters 40 extra days to hand-deliver a marked mail-in ballot to an early voting clerk. And the voter still has the traditional option she has always had for casting a mail-in ballot: mailing it,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel.

The ruling blocked Friday’s injunction from U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who said Abbott’s order placed an unacceptable burden on voters who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

[…]

The panel criticized Pitman for vastly overstating the magnitude of the burden on voting rights caused by Abbott’s “partial refinement” of an earlier order that made it easier for eligible Texans to hand deliver a ballot before Nov. 3.

“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” Duncan wrote. “Indeed, one strains to see how it burdens voting at all.”

Texans still have “numerous ways” to participate before the Nov. 3 election — by voting early beginning Tuesday because Abbott added six days to the early voting period as a pandemic safety measure, by hand delivering completed mail-in ballots before Election Day, and by dropping their ballot in the mail, Duncan said.

See here and here for the background. Never mind the fact that the state of Texas had previously affirmed that multiple dropoff locations were legal, never mind the fact that Abbott issued this order a week before early voting began and more than two months after Harris County had announced its plan for multiple locations, and of course never mind the global pandemic that has everyone seeking to mitigate their own personal risk. Abbott extended the early voting period, so what are you peasants complaining about?

I mean, look. The Harris County Clerk used legal means to make voting easier and more accessible. The Governor used a false pretext to overrule him, and did so late in the process after people had been led to expect what the Clerk had implemented. The fact that the Governor had indeed taken steps to expand voting access isn’t relevant. The fact that most other counties hadn’t taken similar action as Harris isn’t relevant – they could have and in many cases should have, and if the Governor thought that was unfair to the voters in the slacking counties, he could have used the same authority he exercised here to try to spur those other counties to action. The point is that Harris County stood for making it easier and more convenient to vote, and the state of Texas said no, you can’t do that. In response, the Fifth Circuit said “we don’t see the problem here”. That’s what we’re up against.

I should note that there is still that state lawsuit, which will have a hearing this week. I don’t expect much at this point, but duty compels me to point this out. I presume the other federal lawsuit – as I observed before, this was a combination of two federal lawsuits, but did not include the third – is now moot. As we have seen over and over again, the way forward is going to require winning more elections first.

2020 early voting starts today

From the inbox:

The Early Voting period for the November 2020 General Election begins tomorrow, Tuesday, October 13th, and continues through Friday, October 30th. This is the longest Early Voting period in Texas history, and voters who are not eligible to vote by mail are encouraged to vote early to avoid long lines and crowds on Election Day. The Harris County Clerk’s Office has provided more voter access than ever before, tripling the number of Early Voting Centers from just over 40 in 2016 to 122 this November. Visit http://www.HarrisVotes.com/Locations to find your nearest voting center, along with approximate wait times at voting centers across Harris County.

“My number one priority is keep voters and election workers safe this November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We know that voting by mail is the safest and most convenient way to vote, but for the thousands of Harris County residents that are not eligible, we’ve provided more opportunities to vote and stay safe than ever before in Texas history. We’ve worked hard to provide a safe in-person voting experience and give voters more choices in how they cast their ballot — from larger, safer locations to voting from the comfort and safety of your vehicle. I encourage everyone to make your plan to vote and to take advantage of the Early Voting period to cast your ballot safely this fall.”

VOTING METHODS

KEY DATES

  • Tuesday, October 13: First day of Early Voting
  • Friday, October 23: Last day to apply to vote by mail
  • Tuesday, October 27 – Thursday, October 29: Extended Early voting hours to 10 pm
  • Thursday, October 29: 24 hour voting at eight (8) locations
  • Friday, October 30: Last day of Early Voting
  • Tuesday, November 3: Election Day

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

As a matter of historical pattern, today is likely to be very heavy, and the two or three days before the end of early voting are also very heavy, with the last day usually swamping the rest. Keep that in mind if you want to vote in person and minimize your exposure to crowds. If you have a flexible schedule, vote in the later morning – say, between 9 and 11 – or mid-afternoon – say, between 2 and 4 – to avoid the rush hour and lunchtime folks. Look to see how busy your location is, and choose another if it looks less crowded. We can all do a little something to avoid and minimize risk.

And while the courts will likely not do anything to stop Greg Abbott’s vote-suppresing order to close mail ballot dropoff locations, you can still drop yours off at Reliant Arena, or just put it in the mail as people have always done. Just do it quickly, don’t wait on it, and track its progress. If you have requested a mail ballot and for some reason have not received it, and you cannot vote in person (I have a friend who asked about this for her son at college), by all means call the County Clerk’s office and have them check it out. They should be able to send you another one ASAP if the first one didn’t get sent or got lost.

At this point I would say if you’ve been going to the grocery store or getting takeout, you can and probably should vote in person, picking a good place and time as noted above. But do make a plan, because turnout is gonna be lit.

Harris County election officials are preparing for a record number of voters to cast their ballots before Election Day, a process that will ramp up across Texas on Tuesday as early voting begins for the November general election.

County Clerk Chris Hollins, the elections administrator for the state’s largest county, said he expects as many as 1.7 million Harris County voters to turn out, a total that would shatter the record 1.3 million votes from 2016. Political analysts and elections officials are projecting an unusually large share of the votes will come during the early voting period, which Gov. Greg Abbott extended by six days, and through the mail as voters look to avoid contracting COVID-19 at crowded Election Day polling sites.

“It’s very likely that you’re looking at close to about three-quarters of all the vote being in before Election Day, which is a dramatic turnaround from what we’ve had just a few years ago,” said Jay Aiyer, an assistant county attorney working on elections at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “It’s better to think of the election process as less about Election Day and Nov. 3 and really more about ‘election weeks.’”

I should note that 74% of the vote in 2016 was early or by mail, and 71% was early or by mail in 2018. So this is in line with recent elections, though with likely much higher numbers this time around.

Hollins had mailed out 235,000 ballots by this past weekend, his office announced, more than doubling the total from 2016. He had anticipated sending out roughly 10 times that amount to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stopped the effort through a legal challenge.

The clerk’s office had received 22,000 completed mail ballots by the weekend, while another 13,250 voters had dropped off their ballots in person at NRG Arena through Friday.

Driving part of the expected turnout increase is the steady growth of Harris County’s voter rolls. The county has added nearly 234,000 registered voters since 2016, far more than the 143,000 new residents added during the same span.

I’ll be tracking everything as usual. Now get out there and vote!

Judge briefly halts Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

Late Friday breaking news, which lasted until the early afternoon on Saturday.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots heading into the Nov. 3 general election, blocking the enforcement of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order that sought to limit counties to just one such location.

Saying Abbott’s order confused voters and restricted voter access, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted an injunction late Friday barring its enforcement. With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous locations to accept the ballots before Abbott’s order.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county,” Pitman wrote, “older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party called Friday’s ruling a “common sense order [that] followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”

Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats had denounced Abbott’s order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal court, arguing the order was based on invalid security concerns and places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

The Texas and national League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed suit the night of Abbott’s order, and another lawsuit was filed the next day by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group Bigtent Creative and a 65-year-old voter.

“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location. Limiting counties like Harris is a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. Looking at the plaintiffs, it appears that the first lawsuit and the second lawsuit were combined. That leaves one other federal lawsuit, plus the one state lawsuit for which there is a hearing next week.

One presumes this will be appealed, and as we all know the Fifth Circuit is where all good things go to die. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that allowing Abbott’s order, which was made more than two months after counties had begun making plans to have multiple dropoff locations and after the state Solicitor General filed a brief saying that state law allowed for this, is the thing that would improperly disrupt the election at this late date. I also think the Fifth Circuit can rise to the occasion of brushing such an objection aside. Travis County, one of the places that had multiple dropoff locations in place prior to the order, has said it will wait to see what the Fifth Circuit does before reopening them. It’s hard to fault them for that. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

UPDATE: As expected, Paxton has filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judge’s ruling. You can read that here. The smart money always says that he gets what he asks for from this court, so it’s a matter of how quickly they have a hearing and issue a ruling.

UPDATE: Faster than you can say “Anything you want, Kenny”, the Fifth Circuit grants Paxton’s motion. Now we wait for a hearing. See why Travis County decided to wait before reopening any of those dropoff locations? Here’s the Chron story about the granting of the stay.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

Lawyers for voters and voting rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order limiting counties to one location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.

Abbott waited too long to issue his order on Oct. 1, they argued, not only because it came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations after a monthlong public information campaign, but also because voting had already begun in the Nov. 3 general election.

“It is too late and too dangerously burdensome to change election rules midstream,” lawyer Chad Dunn told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in a hearing that was held via Zoom as a pandemic precaution.

Other lawyers argued that Abbott’s order placed a disproportionate burden on Texans who are most likely to vote by mail — those who are 65 and older or have a disability — by forcing many to endure longer and more difficult travel to ensure that their votes are submitted in a time of decreasing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s ironic and sad,” lawyer John Devaney said. “Now, after voting has started, the plug has been pulled.”

Lawyers for Abbott disputed claims that his order limited voting rights, saying the governor acted to expand opportunities and options for voters during the pandemic.

Abbott’s first election-related order, issued July 27, added six days of early voting and suspended a state law that allows voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day, lawyer Eric Hudson told the judge.

In effect, Abbott gave voters almost 40 extra days to hand-deliver their ballots, Hudson argued.

“That’s not provided for in Texas law, and without Gov. Abbott’s proclamation, that right … would not be possible,” he said.

Pitman broke in to ask: “Is it the governor’s position that we’ve given you so much it’s OK to take back a little?”

“I don’t think we’ve taken anything back, your honor,” Hudson replied.

This hearing was for the first lawsuit, filed by LULAC and the League of Women Voters. Earlier in the day, the ACLU and the Lincoln Project announced they had filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Courthouse News has some further details.

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

It wouldn’t shock me if we get a ruling by Monday, but we’ll see. This is now the fourth lawsuit filed against the Abbott order, with three of them in federal court. According to the Statesman story, there’s a hearing scheduled for the state lawsuit next week.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman appeared unconvinced by the idea that eliminating the additional locations would have no impact on voting accessibility.

The suit before Pitman is one of several challenging Texas election laws and Abbott’s pandemic executive orders amending them that are still swirling, even as the start of early voting approaches.

[…]

The pool of voters using this method appears to be relatively small so far, though mail-in voting is up across Texas, so demand could rise.

In Harris County, for example, just 0.2 percent of 85,922 absentee voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff; 39 of the 404 ballots for the Nov. 3 election that have been returned through Thursday were dropped off by voters. Those dropoffs ceased when Abbott’s order went into effect with less than 24 hours notice.

It should be noted that dropoff boxes were basically never mentioned as an option for the July primary runoffs, so the fact that almost no one used them is no surprise. And since 39 out of 404 is almost ten percent, it sure looks like we were on our way to a significant increase in the use of this method. I point these numbers out because one can make an argument about how much of a burden Abbott’s order is based on them.

Fourth lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is heard from:

A copy of the complaint is here – this is a federal suit, filed in the Western District of Texas, in Austin. It joins two other federal suits and one state lawsuit. I have no idea if the sheer number of complaints has any effect on the outcome, but whatever the case, this action on Abbott’s part sure did draw a lot of response.

I don’t really have anything else to add, but I thought you might like this:

People sure are determined to vote. I am cheered by their determination to not get deterred by all of the obstacles in their path, and angry that those obstacles exist in the first place. There are so many things our future Democratic Legislature is going to have to do to fix this crap.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Second lawsuit filed against Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff order

From Chuck Lindell on Twitter, on Saturday afternoon:

See here for the background, and here for more on the first lawsuit. This one is a Democracy Docket suit, and you can read the complaint here. As of when I drafted this on Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t any news coverage that I could find – this CNN story mentions the second lawsuit, but it’s primarily about the first one, and doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Marc Elias of Democracy Docket summarizes what the complaint is about:

Monday ought to be a busy day at the federal courthouse. I feel like there may be cause to file a complaint in state court as well, on the grounds that Abbott’s action violates the Disaster Act since it does not conform with the goal of mitigating the disaster and thus isn’t an appropriate use of his emergency powers, but I Am Not A Lawyer so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll update this when I see a link to news story about this second lawsuit.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

Abbott moves to stop mail ballot dropoff locations

I don’t know about you, but this reeks of fear to me.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday declared that counties can designate only one location to collect completed mail ballots from voters, forcing Harris County to abandon 11 sites set up for that purpose.

Abbott’s proclamation said counties must also allow poll watchers to “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office” related to the delivery of marked ballots. He said the measure was designed to improve ballot security.

“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our election,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Abbott did not cite any examples of voter fraud, which election law experts say is exceedingly rare.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins had set up 12 locations — 11 of them county clerk annex offices — throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collet mail ballots. The county now will only be able to accept ballots only at its election headquarters at NRG Arena.

This new executive order is here. This is of a piece with the Hotze mandamus to limit mail ballot dropoffs to Election Day itself. It’s telling that Abbott is just now issuing orders about the use of multiple locations for mail ballot dropoffs, because County Clerk Chris Hollins announced his intention to use the 11 County Clerk Annex offices for this purpose in mid-July, which is to say two and a half months ago. And Abbott is just now taking action? I mean, come on.

It’s really hard to escape the conclusion that this is a desperation move by Abbott, in part to try to curb Democratic voting, and in part to quell the wingnut rebellion that’s been brewing against him. And let’s be clear, the Texas GOP as recently as the runup to the 2018 election would have laughed at the Dems’ efforts to get their voters out. “Oh, the Dems think they can boost their turnout and win some elections, aren’t they adorable.” They’re taking it all quite seriously now, that much is for sure.

It’s transparent and it’s ridiculous, and it makes no sense as anything but a pure partisan power move.

Now to be sure, people don’t have to use a dropoff location. They can just use the mail as always, and now there’s a nifty mail ballot tracker to ensure that your ballot gets received and processed. I feel reasonably confident saying that most people were planning to vote by mail as they had done before. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a simple and innovative way to make voting easier for people, something Chris Hollins has excelled at in his brief time as County Clerk. Greg Abbott’s move is the exact opposite of that, and it serves no good purpose.

And I remind you, it was done at the last minute, after weeks and weeks of people being told they could use these annex locations. What have Texas Republicans had to say about last-minute changes to the voting process?

I hope they have a lawsuit filed before I get to publish this post. (Per the Trib, one may indeed be filed today, perhaps more than one.) And I can’t wait to see how the Fifth Circuit applies its own jurisprudence to this question.

(On a side note, I will note that while I have heaped all kinds of scorn and contempt on the multitudinous Hotze vote-suppression lawsuits, I have also repeatedly agreed that there is a serious debate to have about the extent of Abbott’s executive powers and the proper role of our extremely part-time Legislature in all this. Because Hotze and company are a bunch of rancid clowns, they are a terrible vehicle for posing those questions. Perhaps by opening this war on a second front, Abbott will finally have a worthy opponent putting them before a judge.)

For a bit of variety, and to provide a summary of all this, here’s a press release from All on the Line, a national campaign to restore fairness to our democracy and ensure every American has an equal say in our government.

“This last minute order is another link in a very long chain of voter suppression and intimidation in Texas,” said Genevieve Van Cleve, All On The Line state director. “Governor Greg Abbott is working to make it harder for grandparents to vote and allowing so-called poll watchers to glower at them while they do it.”

In preparation for the November general election, counties with large populations including Harris and Travis have designated and staffed satellite drop off locations to make it easier for those not comfortable sending their completed ballots through the mail.

Texas has 254 counties. Loving County has a population of 160 people. Harris County has a population of 4,713,000 people. Governor Abbott’s order allows each county, regardless of size, the same number of drop off locations for mail-in ballots: one. Further, he has sanctioned citizens to “observe” people delivering their ballots.

Gov. Abbott’s order is meant to suppress turnout and intimidate voters. Those most likely to be impacted are seniors and Texans living with disabilities who rely on mail-in-ballots. The very same people who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

Further, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled days before Gov. Abbott’s order that reinstating straight ticket voting was impossible due largely to the close proximity to the election. Yet, he’s changing the rules of the election with just days to go.

“These last minute changes to the rules will not deter Texas voters from casting their ballots, despite the Governor’s intentions. Texans are energized, well-informed, and will demand that their voices be heard and respected at the ballot box,” Van Cleve said.

Early Vote begins in Texas on October 13th. The last day to register to vote in Texas is October 5th. Mail-in Ballots that are not postmarked must be received by 7pm on Election Day; Mail-in Ballots postmarked by 7pm on Election Day must be received by 5pm the day after Election Day.

Next stop, the litigation. I’m sure I’ll have a post about it tomorrow. The Statesman, the Current, and Reform Austin have more.

You can track your mail ballot in Harris County

Nice.

Harris County residents now are able to track the status of their mail ballots through a new system launched by County Clerk Christopher Hollins Wednesday.

For the first time, a voter can see when their ballot is mailed to them and when it is processed by the clerk’s office after being returned.

“Providing voters with more information … gives voters peace of mind about the mail voting process,” Hollins said in a statement. “I encourage Harris County voters who have applied to vote by mail to track their ballots using our website.”

To do so, residents must visit www.harrisvotes.com/tracking and enter their name, birth date and last four digits of their Social Security or Texas ID number. The Secretary of State’s Office did not immediately respond to a question about how many other counties have such a tracker, though it offers the service on its website.

See here for the Clerk’s press release. Over 200K people have been sent mail ballot applications so far – a few people have even received, filled out, and returned their mail ballots already. We’re still waiting on the Supreme Court to see how many more mail ballot applications get sent out, and of course now we have to deal with Greg Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff bullshit, but those of you who have requested them, this is how you can be sure that yours gets to the finish line.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

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

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

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

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

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

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

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

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

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

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

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

Hotze’s latest Supreme Court gambit

He has nothing else to do, clearly.

A litigious conservative activist in Houston, the Harris County Republican party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates are asking the Texas Supreme Court to limit in-person and absentee voting options for Harris County voters during the pandemic.

The county, the state’s most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, began letting voters drop off absentee ballots Monday for the Nov. 3 general election at 11 annexes. In line with a directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the county also intends to begin in-person early voting Oct. 13.

Prominent activist Steve Hotze, as well as Wendell Champion, a Republican candidate for Congress; Sharon Hemphill, a Republican candidate for judge; and the local GOP chair, are suing to stop that, arguing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is overreaching the bounds of state election law. They’re asking the state’s highest civil court to order Harris County to not begin early voting until Oct. 19 — the date set by state law that Abbott extended by executive order, citing safety concerns — and not accept absentee ballots delivered in person until Nov. 3.

[…]

The conservative plaintiffs also argue that state law does not allow Hollins to permit voters to drop off their ballots at the 11 sites, a strategy they claim “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud.”

According to the Harris County clerk’s website, voters who complete absentee ballots may drop them off at any of 11 locations during specified hours, including 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the early voting period and on Election Day. Voters can deliver only their own ballots in person, and when they do they must present identification.

As the story notes, this is in addition to the mandamus request to halt the extra week of early voting statewide. I have a hard time imagining even this Supreme Court thinking that the law supports halting the extra week in only one county. The use of County Clerk annexes and locations like NRG Arena as mail ballot dropoff locations has been discussed for weeks and weeks, so you have to wonder why this is just being filed now. (It may be because it wasn’t an issue that could be litigated before now – the legal system can be funny that way.) Hotze of course was also the first to try to stop the sending out of mail ballot applications, for which there should be a SCOTX hearing on Wednesday. The other stuff, I have no idea. There’s nothing to indicate any action from SCOTX on the mandamus to halt the extra week of early voting, but I suppose that could happen out of the blue at any time between now and October 12, so who knows. Hotze is basically Pennywise without the makeup, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTX won’t join him down in the sewer.

A word about mail ballot drop boxes

I learned something in this story.

Travis County voters nervous about delays with the post office will be able to hand-deliver mail-in ballots or drop them off at drive-thru sites this fall, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said Tuesday.

“If they want to vote by mail but now they’re worried, at least they have a drive-thru option,” she told county commissioners.

DeBeauvoir said reported issues at the post office have put local election officials “in a jam” and that they’re creating more options for people planning to vote by mail in the upcoming election.

She said she anticipates about 100,000 people in Travis County will vote by mail. There are about 833,000 eligible voters in the county, she said, and about 123,000 of those voters are over 65, which means they qualify for a mail-in ballot under Texas’ limited program.

[…]

Other states also allow election officials to set up “drop boxes” for voters to hand-deliver ballots. Those are illegal in Texas, however; voters must hand their ballots directly to an official.

“Voters will still have to show up in person with only their own ballot,” DeBeauvoir said. “They can’t deliver anybody else’s for them. We want to be sure that voters understand that they’ll need to produce ID and they will have to sign a signature roster.”

DeBeauvoir said there will be a walk-up site to hand-deliver ballots, as well as three drive-thru locations downtown. She said there should be about 10 lanes to drop off ballots.

“We think we can have enough capacity to handle the number of voters we feel like are going to take advantage of this, because of what happened to the post office,” she said.

I did not know that drop boxes as they are being used in other states are illegal in Texas. I’m not surprised, but it is another typical annoyance. Harris County is doing something similar as voters will be able to drop off mail ballots at any County Clerk office, though whether there would be drive-thru service for that is not clear to me. I think there will be drop off boxes at some early voting sites, like the NRG Arena, but that’s only for the early voting period. I’d like to see someone in the Lege revisit this issue in the next session, and put a bill to expand mail ballot drop off access on the agenda.

If Dana DeBeauvoir is correct about there being 100K or so votes by mail in Travis County, that will shatter records. I had to check the SOS archive pages for early voting because the Travis County elections website does not split out mail ballots from other early votes, but in 2016 there were 20,090 mail ballots as of the last day of early voting, which was 4.2% of final turnout. In 2018, those numbers were 17,830 mail ballots, and 3.6% of final turnout. Where it gets more interesting is in the 2020 primary runoff, which of course was done in the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. We also do have mail totals from the county: For the 2020 Democratic primary runoff, there were 20,641 mail ballots cast out of 124,608 total ballots, or 16.6% of turnout, a massive increase. On the Republican side, it was 2,974 mail ballots and 19,257 total ballots, or 15.4%. A hundred thousand mail ballots in November would be around twenty percent of total turnout. Like I said, a big big increase. If other counties are expecting something similar, then this really will be a very different election than what we have seen before.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

More on mail ballots

Here’s a second story from the Trib on the attempted destruction of the Postal Service in the name of vote suppression by Donald Trump.

“I think the goal of Donald Trump’s comments are to destabilize faith in voting systems and we’ll be telling them the truth that voting by mail is safe and secure,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “We’ll counteract fear with facts.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said eligible voters in the state’s most populous county who are worried about delays in the mail will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at any of the county’s 11 offices “beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM.”

“Preserving every eligible citizen’s right to vote is a pillar of our democracy,” he said in a statement. “My office is doing everything in our power to withstand the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic and uphold this essential right for eligible voters. But it is shameful that partisan politics has led to the destruction of the United States Postal Office – an institution we need dearly right now.”

Hollins stressed that “despite this latest form of voter suppression, voting by mail remains the safest method for Texans to vote this November.”

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said it is working to send out 1.7 million vote-by-mail applications to eligible Texans — the largest number in the party’s history. The party has already sent out 900,000 and is sending out the other 815,000 this week, he said.

“We believe strongly that Texans should be able to vote safely and securely during the time of the pandemic,” Rahman said. “Vote by mail is good for democracy, good for our state and good for our country.”

Regarding the president’s recent comments, Rahman said the party will continue to utilize its voter protection team, in addition to a website designed to help register all voters in the state.

“I think that Texans will crawl over broken glass to vote Donald Trump out of office and be vigilant to make sure their vote is counted,” he said.

[…]

The changes at the Postal Service have raised concerns that the process will be slowed down. In the name of cutting costs, the agency has reportedly reduced overtime for workers, banned extra trips used to make sure mail is delivered on-time and is decommissioning 10% of its mail sorting machines. According to The Washington Post, sorting capacity in Houston alone has dropped by 470,000 pieces of mail per hour. Those changes will have an effect on businesses that depend on the mail and people who use it to receive their paychecks or prescriptions, among many other things. But they also have the potential to make it harder for people to get their ballots in before the deadline.

Voter mobilization groups say they will encourage voters to send their ballots in as early as possible to avoid any risk of the delays affecting their vote.

“Our goal as a state should be to have the greatest possible number of Texans vote and for them all to be equally heard at the ballot box,” Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, which works to engage young voters, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “This means expanding on popular and secure reforms like mail-in ballots.”

Galloway also said the group’s organizers “received countless calls” before the primary runoff elections in July with questions about late absentee ballots — many of which, he said, were not received or arrived too late.

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

Republicans in Texas have largely remained quiet on the issue.

See here for the background. Of course Republican leaders have been silent on this, they are all far too cowardly to ever say a word in opposition to their Dear Leader. Democrats have been much more vocal, and while this story has totally blown up and caused some of the worst excesses to halt, there really needs to be a bigger, broader, and louder response from Democrats, especially Congressional Democrats. I mean, they do have some power here, and they need to exercise it.

Now is a good time to call your member of Congress, especially your Democratic member of Congress, and ask them to demand hearings ASAP, with subpoenas and the threat of being hauled in front of Congress by Capitol police if those subpoenas are not obeyed. No more playing nice here, this is as serious as it gets.

At the CEC meeting yesterday, County Clerk Chris Hollins spoke after the other business was done, and he talked about what his office is doing to ensure people can vote despite all of this garbage. I’ve already noted that people can drop off completed mail ballots at any of the 11 County Clerk offices. Hollins reported there will be 120 (!) early voting locations, which should make the in-person experience as safe as possible. (Yes, they need election workers. The gig pays $17 an hour. Go apply if you can.) There were other questions asked of Hollins, including one I posted about early voting locations as mail ballot dropoffs. He didn’t get to the questions, but promised there would be an easily visible FAQ section on the Harris Votes webpage shortly, which would include responses to the questions we asked, so check there in a few days. Trump’s destruction is obscene and anti-American, but it’s also an obstacle that can be overcome. We’re going to be able to handle it here in Harris County, and other urban counties appear to be in decent shape as well. If you’re not sure about your county, pester your officials as needed to get them on the ball. Like I said, this is as serious as it gets.

Do not wait with your mail ballot

You have been warned.

The U.S. Postal Service has warned Texas officials that some ballots cast by mail may not arrive in time to be counted for the November election thanks to certain state deadlines for mail-in ballots being incompatible with its delivery standards.

“This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be retuned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them,” Thomas Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the USPS, wrote to Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in a letter dated July 30. “As a result, to the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted.”

It is unclear how many Texas voters may be affected should such delays occur. A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, which provided The Texas Tribune with a copy of the USPS letter, could not immediately be reached for comment about whether the agency plans to make changes ahead of the election.

Texas was among 40 states, including Florida and Michigan, that received a warning from the USPS over their long-standing deadlines, according to The Washington Post. Six other states and Washington, D.C., received more mild warnings from the Postal Service that said some ballots may be delayed for a smaller group of voters.

You can see a copy of the letter here. This is of course all a part of the larger Trump strategy to suppress votes by destroying the Postal Service. This has to do with the deadline for requesting a mail ballot, which is eleven days before the election, or October 23 this year, according to the SOS calendar. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is very clear that that is way way way too late this year.

So what to do about this, other than hound your elected officials to raise holy hell about this? Well, if you receive a mail ballot application and intend to use it, get that sucker in ASAP. Like, seriously, next day. If at all possible, once you receive and fill out your mail ballot, take it to a dropoff location, wherever your county has them. They can be open all three weeks of early voting, so again, get on it early and take no chances. The rest of you, make a plan to vote in person. I guess the good news for Texas is that the vast majority of us vote in person anyway, so that’s what we need to do the heavy lifting for. But for crying out loud, if you are voting by mail this year, get on it ASAP and either use a dropoff location of send it in right away. There is truly no time to lose. The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: From Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins:

“In Harris County, we are expanding voter access to give voters more options to have their voice heard and cast their votes safely. Voting by mail is hands down the safest method to vote this November. I encourage all eligible voters to apply to vote by mail and return their application and ballot as soon as possible to avoid delays.

“Voters concerned with mail delays will be able to drop off their marked ballot in-person at any of the County’s eleven offices and annexes during business hours, beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM. This is the first time in Harris County history where voters can drop off their marked ballots during the Early Voting Period to ensure on-time delivery. We encourage eligible voters to use this method of voting to avoid long lines at voting centers.

“The earlier you apply to vote by mail, the faster my office can mail your ballot to you. Don’t hesitate to mail it back to us, but you also have the choice to utilize our drop-off locations to return your ballot directly.”

There will be dropoff locations at some if not all early voting locations as well. You have options. Just don’t wait to use them.

More election innovation, please

Some good stuff here:

There’s a lot to like in there and in the embedded letter he wrote to Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff, to formalize these ideas. Several of them have been done or have been proposed for Harris County, including sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter 65 and over, having a mega-voting location, expanding early voting hours during the EV period, and having more curbside voting options. Some ideas are new, or at least new to Harris County, such as having a 24-hour early voting location, having more mail ballot dropoff locations, and mailing “a Notice of Election, Sample Ballot, and information on voting safely during COVID-19 to every registered voter” in the county. I love the creativity, the commitment to making voting easier, and especially since this is coming from a County Commissioner, the willingness to put up the money to make it happen. I hope County Clerk Chris Hollins and Harris County Commissioners Court are paying attention.

The other point I would make here is that we could keep doing some or all of these things in future elections, when there will hopefully not be a pandemic to force the issue, for the simple reason that they do in fact make voting easier. I mean, that’s how it should be.

Of course, a key assumption underpinning all this is that there will be enough people to work the elections. Here’s another idea I like for that:

It turns out that this is already legal and open to students 16 years old and older, so it just needs to be better known. Pass it on to the students you know.

For those of us who don’t need a principal’s permission, here’s what we can do:

The Harris County Clerk’s Office is looking for election workers to staff more than 800 voting centers that will be open for the November 3, 2020 General Election. Election workers are also needed three weeks prior to the election to work at approximately 100 voting centers during the Early Voting period, October 13-30.

“We expect a high turnout for the upcoming general election. Early predictions indicate that more than 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County will cast a ballot in November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We need more than 1,000 election workers for the Early Voting period – which has been extended to three weeks – and more than 8,000 election workers for Election Day. I highly encourage all civic-minded residents of Harris County to consider serving our communities as election workers.”

To serve as an election worker, you must be a registered voter in Harris County, have transportation to and from the polling location, and be able to attend training. Bilingual election workers are needed and encouraged to apply. Students 16 years of age and older can apply to work as student clerks. All of these positions are paid.

“We will take every possible measure to keep voters and election workers safe, from keeping voting centers sanitized, to enforcing social distancing, to providing personal protective equipment to all election workers and voters,” said Clerk Hollins.

If you are interested in becoming an election worker, click here to apply online or call 713.755.6965.

This is all-hands-on-deck time. If you can do this, or know someone who can, please take action. ABC-13 has more.

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.