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Harris County

Early voting starts today for District B runoff

At long last, the voters in District B will get to elect a new City Council member.

Here’s the Chron story.

Cynthia Bailey

Tarsha Jackson, a consultant and criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, both aim to bring fresh, grassroots energy to the district. Jackson won 20.9 percent of the vote in the 14-candidate general election last November. Bailey came in second with 14.5 percent.

[…]

District B has been represented by Jerry Davis, who faced a term limit last year, for nine years. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents in the city (47 percent), stretching from historic neighborhoods such as Kashmere Gardens and Greater Fifth Ward to Acres Homes and Greenspoint.

Early voting begins Wednesday, pauses for Thanksgiving and resumes Nov. 30 through Dec. 8.

Jackson has the institutional and financial edge. The progressive organization she used to work for, the Texas Organizing Project, is supporting her bid. Jackson has $21,000 in campaign cash to Bailey’s $3,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

Bailey, though, proved a gritty campaigner last year, surprising other candidates in the field by reaching the runoff. She is known to some as the “Mayor of Settegast.”

Tarsha Jackson

Jackson, 49, was thrust into activism and organizing after her son was arrested for kicking a teacher in elementary school.

She helped advocate for reform legislation in 2007 that ensured young people would not be sent to state jail for misdemeanors. Jackson ultimately became Harris County criminal justice director for TOP, which aims to mobilize Black and Latino communities across the state.

As an organizer, she has been involved in Harris County’s historic bail settlement, has called on the city to end what she calls a “debtors’ prison” system that can jail people for failing to pay fines, and this summer led a report of recommendations for police reform.

Jackson hopes to bring that activist spirit to City Hall on council.

She said the defining issue for District B is poverty. District B has the poorest median household income ($33,257) in the city. Nearly 40 percent of the district’s roughly 193,000 residents live in a household that brings in less than $25,000 per year.

“I’ve watched my communities be left behind in all areas. Infrastructure, jobs, the schools that I went to,” Jackson said. “Once we start addressing income disparities, getting people to work, that’s going to start fixing some of the issues.”

For that reason, Jackson said a top priority would be job training. She plans to push for stronger community benefit agreements when the city gives tax incentives to developers. Those deals can include provisions about hiring local workers, including affordable housing and funding for community programs.

“Let’s make sure we’re benefiting from the dollars we’re putting out,” Jackson said.

Another priority would be flooding and illegal dumping. Jackson said she would push for more regular maintenance and cleanings for drainage ditches and bayous, and seek to broaden access to dump sites, which she said require a driver’s license and matching electricity bill. Many renters lack those documents, which contributes to dumping, she said.

I did an interview with Cynthia Bailey in November of 2019, which was intended for that year’s December runoff. That was before all the craziness about her eligibility to be on the ballot and the long drawn-out legal process that finally wrapped up a couple of months ago. I don’t know how relevant this is now, given how much has changed since we spoke, but here it is:

I did make contact at the time with Tarsha Jackson for an interview as well, but by the time we connected the runoff had already been pushed back, and we agreed to try again later once the legal maneuvering had ended. That didn’t happen, as I did not get back to her, so this is the best I can do.

The PDF map of early voting locations is here, along with the times they will be open. Note that there are also runoffs for the cities of Baytown, Humble, La Porte, and Nassau Bay, and there is at least one EV location in each of those places. There are also three drive-through EV locations, two in District B and one in Baytown. Get out there and vote while you can.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

Beware color-coded county maps

I spotted this on Twitter the other day and it got me thinking:

A larger view of the embedded image is here. It was just barely large enough that I was able to compare it to my now-favorite map of Texas counties and figure out what most of those blue places are. (I didn’t work my way through all of them, for various reasons that included my eyesight and my sanity.) I snagged the Texas portion of that image, pasted it into Paint, doubled it in size, and then labeled some of the counties of interest. My handiwork, such as it is, is here. Take a look at that for a minute, then let’s come back and discuss the two main problems with imagery of this kind.

Ready? Problem number one is that you don’t get any sense of the absolute size of the shift, in either direction, from this image. Harris County, which I feel confident you can find even though I have unkindly drawn lines through it to point to other counties of interest, is rendered in medium blue, to show a 10-20 point shift in preference. But that shift represents over 200,000 total votes in favor of Democrats. That didn’t just help to carve into the overall vote lead that Republicans have had in the state, it has enabled Democrats to entirely flip county government, including the judiciary and numerous appellate benches, while also netting a Congressional seat and two State Rep seats. Contrast that to Starr County, which has gotten so much attention and which is among the dark red counties along the southern border, which moved about eight thousand votes towards Republicans. That shift was more significant at the Presidential level, by the way – it’s a bit less than a five thousand vote shift in the Senate and Railroad Commissioner races. Not nothing, and definitely a cause for concern for Democrats, but nowhere close to as substantial as the shift in Harris County. But you would never know that, and the color coding makes it even more misleading.

Problem two is related to problem one but manifests itself in a slightly different way. That problem is that this shift is about the percentage difference between 2012 and 2020. Before I get to the specifics, let me try to explain why this gives a distorted description of the problem with a sports example. Suppose the Texans are playing the Ravens. At the end of the first quarter, the Ravens lead 14-7, which is to say that the Ravens have scored 66.7% of the points in the game. In the second quarter, the Ravens score another touchdown and also add a field goal, while the Texans score a touchdown. That makes the score 24-14 at halftime, and it means that the Ravens scored only 58.9% of the points in the second quarter. Which, if you go by the math used in Nate Cohn’s map, a fifteen-point shift in the Texans’ favor – they went from being down 33 points in the first quarter to being down only eighteen points in the second quarter. Look at them mounting a comeback!

Except of course that on the actual scoreboard, the Ravens have extended their lead from seven points to ten points. The rate by which they are increasing their lead has slowed, but their lead is still growing. The Texans now have a larger deficit to overcome. Perhaps the trends are now in their favor, but the bottom line is that they’re still farther behind than they were before.

All that is why you should look at the light blue shift in Montgomery County, for example, with a cocked eyebrow. It is true, in 2012 Mitt Romney took 79.7% of the vote in Montgomery County to Barack Obama’s 19.0%, for a sixty point lead, while Donald Trump carried Montgomery by a mere 44 points, 71.2 to 27.4. But as we have discussed before, that translated into another 14K net votes for Republicans at the top of the ticket. The Democrats’ deficit continues to grow even as the Republicans’ rate of acceleration has declined. It’s comfort of the coldest kind. The same is very much true for Parker and Johnson counties, and for counties we have not yet discussed, like Comal and Medina and Ector and Midland.

It’s not all gloom and doom. In some places where the deficit increased, the rate of that increase dropped a lot, to the point where you could imagine it turning around in the next election. Lubbock County is an example of that – again, I’ll be going into that in more detail in a later post. In some counties, like Caldwell and Bastrop, there was actually a small gain between 2016 and 2020 after a bigger drop from 2012 to 2016, so while the overall gap is still significant, the direction is what you want. Imagine the Texans winning the second quarter of our game 7-6, so that they now trail 20-14. Denton and Collin counties, which are dark blue in the Cohn map, are the canonical examples here, though Brazos County makes a nice showing as well. We’re still trailing, but you can see how we get to the lead from here.

I don’t want you to look too skeptically at every blue spot that isn’t immediately identifiable as a Dem beacon. Dems really don’t need to win too many counties to carry Texas some fine day, because of their massive advantage in the biggest counties. We don’t need Montgomery County to turn blue to win the state. We don’t even need it to be on a path to turning blue. We just need the gap between Republicans and Democrats to quit growing, and maybe shrink a little. One way we were able to turn Harris County blue was that we could rally Democrats in heavily Republican areas because they knew their votes were important to flipping (and now maintaining) the county as a Democratic bastion. In Montgomery, that task is abstracted out one level further – there aren’t any local candidates who are likely to win, at a district or county level, so the motivation has to come from your votes mattering at the state level. It’s a heavier lift, since those statewide candidates won’t be as well known locally and will likely not spend much if any time there campaigning, and I have tons of respect for the effort made in spite of those conditions. We need that in more places around the state.

Again, we have discussed some of this before, and will discuss it again soon. I’m now thinking I need to adapt my Presidential-level vote series on “surrounding counties” to the Senate and other statewide races. That ought to keep me busy for the next few weeks.

Before we go, one more example that highlights both of the issues I have identified in this post. Take a look at King County, east of Lubbock and north of Abilene (Taylor County). Who would have expected a blue shift in a place like that? Well, here are the numbers for King County in 2012 and 2020:


Romney  Obama  Romney%  Obama%  Margin
======================================
   139      5    95.9%    3.5%    92.4

 Trump  Biden   Trump%  Biden%  Margin
======================================
   151      8    95.0%    5.0%    90.0

There was one vote in 2012 for Libertarian Gary Johnson, and no third-party or write-in votes in 2020. This is what a “blue shift” in King County looks like. I’m sure I’m as impressed as you are.

Greg Abbott has no interest in fighting COVID

It is what it is at this point.

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.

“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.

Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.

“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”

That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.

I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.

Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:

Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.

“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”

[…]

Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.

Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”

In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.

“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.

He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.

“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”

It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.

“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”

In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.

“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”

There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.

What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.

Counties of interest, part one: Around Harris

There’s been so much focus in the past couple of years about the suburbs and how their traditional voting patterns have changed. I wanted to use the election results we have to take a closer look at what that means. My approach is to look at the results in the counties that surround the large urban counties in Texas, and see what we can infer from the Presidential election data since 2012. A few things to note before we get started.

– I will be looking at the counties that border Harris, Dallas/Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar. I’m skipping El Paso because there’s only one county in the state that is adjacent to it.

– I’m using Presidential results from 2012, 2016, and 2020. As we have discussed, this is only one dimension to the data, but I want to keep this fairly simple. We can discern direction from these numbers, and that’s good enough for these purposes.

– I’m going back to 2012 to provide some extra context. I could have gone back further, and maybe I will take a look at trends since 2004 in some counties at a later date, but I think keeping this study to after the 2010 election, when rural areas gave up the pretense of supporting Democrats at any level, makes more sense.

– In the chart below and in subsequent posts, “Shift” is the change in net votes from a Democratic perspective, from 2012 to 2020. A positive number means Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2012, and a negative number means Republicans did better. So for example, Obama trailed in Brazoria County by 36,431 votes, but Biden trailed by 28,159 votes, so a shift in the Democrat direction by 8,282 votes. Obama lost Chambers County by 8,997 votes, Biden lost it by 13,346 votes, so a shift of 4,329 away from Dems. Make sense?

All right. Let’s start with the seven counties that border Harris County.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Brazoria     70,862   34,421   72,791   43,200   89,939   61,780    8,282
Chambers     11,787    2,790   13,339    2,948   17,343    3,997   -4,349
Fort Bend   116,126  101,144  117,291  134,686  157,595  195,191   52,578
Galveston    69,059   39,511   73,757   43,658   93,306   58,247   -5,511
Liberty      17,323    5,202   18,892    4,862   23,288    5,779   -5,388
Montgomery  137,969   32,920  150,314   45,835  193,224   74,255  -13,920
Waller        9,244    6,514   10,531    5,748   14,206    8,130   -3,346

The first thing that should be clear is that just because a county borders a big urban county, that doesn’t mean it’s suburban. For sure Montgomery and Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston meet that definition, though all four of those counties also have some very rural areas, but I daresay no one thinks of Chambers or Liberty or Waller that way. Yet while the first four are seen as places of booming population growth, the other three are doing their share of growing, too. Chambers County has doubled in population since 1990. Waller County has more than doubled in that timespan. Liberty County is up by almost 75%.

But they’re still small. None has a city with more than ten thousand people in it, so they don’t have much in common with the other counties. Maybe it’s different for you, but while I personally know plenty of people in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties, I know all of one in the other three. I drive through Waller now and then on my way to Austin or to Camp Allen when my daughters were going there, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in Chambers or Liberty.

I say all this to note that while Montgomery is the driving force behind the Republican strength in this area, with Galveston right behind it thanks to places like Friendswood and League City, the other three counties have increased the Republican bottom line over the past few elections by a significant amount as well, with far fewer people in them. Jane Robinson would be the incoming Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals if Chambers County had had the same numbers in 2020 as they had in 2016. It makes a difference.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is just to highlight the places where we’re losing ground, if only so we can be aware of it. We’ve got our arms around Fort Bend County, and Brazoria is starting to head in the right direction. Montgomery and Galveston are problems, but we have infrastructure in those places, and just by virtue of being suburban I have some reason to think we’ll get to a turning point. I have no idea what exists in the other three counties to promote Democratic policies or candidates. We need a strategy for these places, and the resources to carry it out. We don’t need to win them – we’re no more likely to win Chambers than we are to win Montgomery any time soon – but we at least need to keep up with Republican voter growth.

That’s a theme I’m going to return to more than once a I proceed through these. I don’t pretend to know what the right answers are, I’m just trying to make sure we know there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope you find this helpful.

The poll workers’ stories

Some good news.

With a record 2,431,457 registered voters on the rolls in Harris County, there were several reasons poll workers expected a huge turnout and they got it, but not on Election Day.

Two judges working two of the locations in northwest Harris County with the largest turnouts in the county both saw voters take advantage of extra days and utilize extended hours for voting.

“It was impressive the number of people who turned out,” said John Baucum who served as precinct judge at the city of Jersey Village location.

Harris County set a record for the total number of voters ever participating in an election with 1,649,573 casting ballots, but it fell just shy in the percentage of registered voters who showed up at the polls with 67.84 percent.

The last time a presidential race garnered more than 70 percent of the voters in Harris County was in 1992 when Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George W. Bush. At least 71.68 percent or 942,636 of the 1,315,010 registered voters cast their vote in the election.

While the voter rolls have increased almost twice that number since 1992, participation seems to be on an uptick and so is early voting.

“Yes, it’s the most voters we’ve ever had,” confirmed Roxanne Werner, director of community relations for Harris County Clerk Chris Collins.

[…]

Baucum said he believed the process in his precinct was fair.

“Voting day, when they come into that center, you want them to know that their vote counts, that the process was fair, and their ballot was in secret. I think as a team we make sure that it happens,” he said.

Baucum was grateful for his staff who worked tirelessly to ensure a fair election.

One of the difficulties with staffing, especially on election day, is securing rare interpreters.

“We have to be prepared for any voter to walk in,” he said. “Before countywide voting, we would have a Spanish and English interpreter, and maybe in southwest Houston you might have had a Chinese or Vietnamese interpreter, now we’re required to have all of them. We were able to have all of those plus one of our clerks spoke Portuguese and German,” he said. “We were probably overprepared.”

“Those are the challenges you see with countywide voting. We’ve been able to find the people to fill those spots,” he said.

For Matt Harris, serving as an alternate judge for the Richard and Meg Weekley Community Center was exciting since the location led the county in early voting with 29,810.

“This was my first time. It was an interesting experience. I’m glad I did it and I’ll probably continue to do it,” he said. “I think it’s important for my age group to be involved in the process.”

The 38-year-old moved to Texas from Illinois a decade ago in search of job opportunities.

“My wife graduated from college right after the recession hit Illinois really hard. We tried things there for a while, but nothing panned out,” he said.

They pulled up roots and moved to the Houston area where they found 30-40 postings for her job versus only two or three for the same in Illinois.

He took the training for being a precinct judge twice.

“Originally I was scheduled to work the primaries in March and didn’t get to and did the training a second time which was very helpful,” he said.

He also received a reference manual which provided invaluable information for judges.

He said the Weekley Center has been a voting location for at least the 10 years he’s lived in the area.

Until he moved to Texas, he really wasn’t involved in politics so much.

“I always pushed it to the side because it’s (Illinois) always been a blue state and I’m conservative,” he said.

As we now know, final turnout was 1,656,686 after provisional ballots were cured. Both of the election workers quoted are Republicans, and as you can see they both thought the process was fair, accessible, and generally well done. It would be nice if some of our Republican leaders felt that way, too. Honestly, if the Chron wants to talk to a couple of election workers and let them tell their stories every week till we run out of them, that would be fine with me. The single best thing to come out of this election – OK, the second best thing – was the joy and enthusiasm so many people had for participating in it, for feeling like their votes mattered and their voices were heard. I’ve lived my entire life in an atmosphere of cynicism and detachment towards our democracy, and this is the first time I can recall it being more cool to be into it than to be sarcastic about it. It’s better this way.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “blue spine” and the rural counties

Point:

For the third consecutive election cycle, Democrats saw their advantage over Republicans grow in the 21 counties along Interstate 35, allowing them to further chip into the Republican dominance that has lasted for nearly three decades. The result was Joe Biden won over 46 percent of the vote in Texas, joining Texas native Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter as the only Democrats to get over 45 percent of the vote in Texas in a presidential race in 56 years.

A key reason for Biden’s performance in Texas is what is happening along I-35 from Laredo, through San Antonio and Austin and up to the Dallas Metroplex.

It’s not a mystery. U.S. Census data shows a shift toward a more diverse, better educated and wealthier electorate since 2010, changes that favor Democrats.

Along I-35, Biden flipped traditionally red counties like Tarrant, Williamson and Hays, and did vastly better in Travis, Dallas and Bexar counties than Hillary Clinton did just four years earlier.

This is a major departure from the way Texans in those counties voted over the previous two decades. Back in 2014, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican at the top of the ticket, won the same counties by a combined 346,000 votes.

Two years later. Clinton would win that stretch by just over 116,000 votes over President Donald Trump. Then 2018 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won it by 440,000 votes over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Biden pushed his lead in the blue spine this year to nearly 500,000 votes.

That is a swing of more than 800,000 votes from Republicans to Democrats and explains why, along with Harris County’s march to solid blue, the state has seen increasingly competitive races at the top of the ballot since George W. Bush won Texas by 22 percentage points in 2004.

I’ve covered some of this before, and there was a similar Trib story published at around the same time, because it’s fertile ground and a reminder that even in defeat, Dems have gained a lot of ground over the past decade. Disappointing as the results were this year, we shouldn’t forget that.

One more thing:

At the same time the I-35 corridor is getting more Democratic, Republicans are facing challenges with their base of support in West Texas and East Texas. Those regions simply are not growing as fast as I-35. In the Panhandle, the 27 counties with a combined 250,000 voters saw just a 4 percent increase in voter registrations over the last four years. But Hays and Williamson County, with a combined 500,000 voters, registrations have grown a combined 25 percent over the same period.

Also covered this, because the Republican strength in the rural areas is still quite formidable. Even if the longer-term trends are in the Dems’ favor – and as things stand now, they are – we could still be talking about a couple of Presidential cycles before the two lines intersect. The clearest way to speed that up is for the Dems to figure out how to narrow the gap in rural Texas rather than wait it out.

And so on that note, we have the counterpoint, about the Republican red wall in the many rural counties. This story was from the day before the election, so there wasn’t time to blog about it, but it contained this nugget that made me set the article aside and come back to it as part of my usual postmortem analysis.

Among Democrats, there’s optimism that Biden-backing allies in rural Texas could not only prevent Trump from recreating his overwhelming 2016 margins in white, working class areas, the kind of support that offset his losses in the suburbs and among voters of color four years ago, but also make Trump’s path to victory in Texas all the more difficult.

“I’m also seeing a pretty substantial uptick in folks volunteering with Democratic-adjacent organizations,” said Amy Hull, 42, who lives in Tarrant County. “It’s been interesting to see people who were pretty tuned out four years ago become unapologetic about their politics and determined to do everything possible to make our community, state and country government work better for everyone.”

Republicans could especially take heart in rural areas that have only grown more red in recent election cycles. Take for example Jones County, which includes part of Abilene and went for John McCain by 47 points in 2008, Mitt Romney by 55 points in 2012 and Trump by 65 points in 2016.

The county GOP chair, Isaac Castro, said there is “a lot more enthusiasm” for Trump in Jones County compared to four years ago, when some local Republicans had reservations about his conservative credentials.

“I really think that this year he’s probably going to do better,” Castro said, adding that he was not worried about Trump losing statewide. “You know, West Texas is going to be strong for him again.”

Here’s how the vote has gone in Jones County since 2008, updated to include this year:


Candidates    Votes     Pct
===========================
McCain        4,203  72.37%
Obama         1,528  26.31%
Margin        2,675  46.06%
Total         

Romney        4,262  76.56%
Obama         1,226  22.02%
Margin        3,036  54.54%
Total

Trump         4,819  80.86%
Clinton         936  15.70%
Margin        3,883  65.16%
Total        10,101

Trump         5,621  84.00%
Biden           989  14.78%
Margin        4,632  69.22%
Total         9,635

The SOS election returns pages did not list the total number of registered voters in Jones County in 2008 and 2012, so that figure is only there for the two most recent elections. The trend is clear, and it has netted the Republican Presidential candidate an extra two thousand votes since 2008, though as you can see Joe Biden at least added on to Hillary Clinton’s meager vote total from 2016. May not seem like much, but there are a lot of counties like Jones out there (keep that chart Michael Li posted in mind), and it all adds up.

I’m going to be taking a deeper dive into this over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully we will all become more familiar with this theme. I think there is room to improve for the Dems, which doesn’t mean winning these areas but being more competitive in them so as not to continue falling behind, but more importantly I think we have to improve in them. It’s easy to say that counties like Jones are running out of room to increase their Republican yield, but there’s no reason to think they’ve reached that point yet, and much of the low-hanging fruit in the big urban areas for Dems have been harvested, too. The first step is to make the commitment, and I’m going to do what I can to convince you that it needs to happen. Stay tuned.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Harris County reaches bike trail deal with CenterPoint

Nice.

CenterPoint rights of way

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

So how did my simple projection work out?

Remember this? I divided the counties up by how much their voter rolls had grown or shrunk since 2012, then used the 2016 turnout levels and 2018 results to project final numbers for the Presidential election in 2020. Now that we have those numbers, how did my little toy do? Let’s take a look.

A couple of things to acknowledge first. The most up to date voter registration numbers show that the group of counties that looked to have lost voters since 2012 have actually gained them, at least in the aggregate. Second, the actual turnout we got so far exceeded past numbers that we literally couldn’t have nailed this, at least not at a quantitative level. So with that in mind, let’s move forward.

We start with the counties that had seen growth of at least 10K voters on their rolls since 2012. There were 33 of these. Here are the numbers I had in my initial review, updated to include what happened this year.


Romney  3,270,387   Obama    2,792,800
Romney      53.9%   Obama        46.1%
Romney +  477,587

Trump   3,288,107   Clinton  3,394,436
Trump       49.2%   Clinton      50.8%
Trump  -  106,329

Cruz    3,022,932   Beto     3,585,385
Cruz        45.7%   Beto         54.3%
Cruz   -  562,453

Trump   4,119,402   Biden    4,579,144
Trump       47.4%   Biden        52.6%
Trump  -  459,742

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012    10,442,191     6,157,687     59.0%
2016    11,760,590     7,029,306     59.8%
2018    12,403,704     6,662,143     53.7%
2020    13,296,048     8,765,774     65.9%

When I did the original post, there were 12,930,451 registered voters in these 33 counties. As you can see, and will see for the other groups, that increased between August and November, by quite a bit. As you can see, Trump did considerably worse than he had in 2016 with these counties, but better than Ted Cruz did in 2018. That says it all about why this race wasn’t as close as the Beto-Cruz race in 2018. My projection had assumed 2016-level turnout, but we obviously got more than that. Here’s what I had projected originally, and what we would have gotten if the 2020 results had been like the 2018 results from a partisan perspective:


Trump   3,533,711   Biden    4,198,699
Trump  -  664,988

Trump   3,975,236   Biden    4,723,310
Trump  -  748,074

Fair to say we missed the mark. We’ll see how much of a difference that would have made later. Now let’s look at the biggest group of counties, the 148 counties that gained some number of voters, from one to 9,999. Again, here are my projections, with the updated voter registration number:


Romney  1,117,383   Obama      415,647
Romney      72.9%   Obama        27.1%
Romney +  701,736

Trump   1,209,121   Clinton    393,004
Trump       75.5%   Clinton      24.5%
Trump  +  816,117

Cruz    1,075,232   Beto       381,010
Cruz        73.8%                26.2%
Cruz   +  694,222

Trump   1,496,148   Biden      501,234
Trump       74.0%   Biden        26.0%
Trump  +  994,914

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012     2,686,872     1,551,613     57.7%
2016     2,829,110     1,653,858     58.5%
2018     2,884,466     1,466,446     50.8%
2020     3,112,474     2,022,490     65.0%

As discussed, there’s a whole lot of strong red counties in here – of the 148 counties in this group, Beto carried ten of them. They had 2,929,965 voters as of August. What had been my projection, and how’d it go here?


Trump   1,264,954   Biden      449,076
Trump  +  815,878

Trump   1,496,148   Biden      501,234
Trump  +  994,914

The margin is wider due to the higher turnout, but Biden actually did a little better by percentage than Clinton did, and was right in line with Beto. This is obviously an area of great need for improvement going forward, but the projection was more or less right on target, at least from a partisan performance perspective. But as you can see, even with the more optimistic projection for Biden, he’s already in the hole. Like I said, this is an area of urgent need for improvement going forward.

Now on to the last group, the 73 counties that had lost voters from 2012, at least going by the August numbers. As you can see, that turned out not to be fully true:


Romney     182,073   Obama      99,677
Romney       64.6%   Obama       35.4%
Romney +    82,396

Trump      187,819   Clinton    90,428
Trump        67.5%   Clinton     32.5%
Trump  +    97,391

Cruz       162,389   Beto       79,237
Cruz         67.2%   Beto        32.8%
Cruz   +    83,152

Trump      226,104   Biden     105,490
Trump        68.2%   Biden       31.8%
Trump  +   120,514

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012       517,163       284,551     55.0%
2016       511,387       286,062     55.9%
2018       505,087       243,066     48.1%
2020       546,997       335,110     61.2%

As you can see, that decline in registrations has reversed, quite dramatically. I didn’t check each individual county – it seems likely that some of them are still at a net negative – but overall they are no longer in decline. Good for them. As you can also see, Biden performed a little worse than Clinton and Beto, but close enough for these purposes. Let’s compare the projection to the reality:


Trump      187,587   Biden      91,561
Trump +     96,026

Trump      226,104   Biden     105,490
Trump  +   120,514

Put the best-case scenario from the first group with what we got in the last two, and we could have had this:


Trump    5,697,488   Biden   5,330,034
Trump       51.67%   Biden      48.33%

Which is pretty close to what I had projected originally, just with a lot more voters now. The actual final result is 52.18% to 46.39%, so I’d say my method came closer to the real result than most of the polls did. Clearly, I missed my calling.

All this was done as an exercise in frivolity – as I said at the time, I made all kinds of assumptions in making this projection, and the main one about turnout level was way wrong. The point of this, I think, is to show that while Dems have indeed improved greatly in performance in the biggest counties, they haven’t done as well everywhere else, and while the marginal difference from Obama 2012 to Clinton 2016 and Biden 2020 isn’t much, the overall direction is wrong (even as Biden improved somewhat on the middle group over Clinton), and we’re going to have a real problem making further progress if we can’t figure out a way to improve our performance in these smaller counties. There is room to grow in the big and growing counties – these include some fast-growing and very red places like Montgomery and Comal, for instance – but we’re going to reach diminishing marginal growth soon, if we’re not already there. We need to step it up everywhere else. I’ll be returning to this theme as we go forward. Let me know what you think.

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

In case you were wondering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Looking ahead to 2022

Continuing with the brain dumps, which are my post-election tradition. This is a collection of thoughts about the next big election, in 2022.

As I said earlier, I take no position on the question of what effect the disparity in door-to-door campaigning had. I can buy there was some effect, but we have no way of how much of an effect it was. The good news is, whatever the case, this isn’t a trend, it’s a one-time effect of an election in a pandemic. I feel pretty confident saying that barring anything extraordinary, traditional door-knocking will be a big component of everyone’s 2022 campaigns. Perhaps Democrats will have learned something useful from this year’s experience that will enhance what they can do in 2022; admittedly, what they have learned may be “this sucks and we never want to do it this way again”.

There are a couple of things that concern me as we start our journey towards 2022. The first is that after four long years of hard work, with one rewarding election cycle and one disappointing cycle, people will be less engaged, which needless to say will make keeping the ground we have gained, let alone gaining more ground, that much harder. I think people will be focused on bringing change to our state government, but we can’t take this for granted. People are tired! These were four years from hell, and we all feel a great weight has been lifted. I get it, believe me. But we felt this way following the 2008 election, and we know what came next. We cannot, absolutely cannot, allow that to happen again. We know what we need to do.

Second, and very much in line with the above, the national environment matters. What President Biden will be able to accomplish in the next two years depends to a significant extent on the outcome of those two Georgia Senate runoffs, but however they go we need to remember that there are significant obstacles in his way. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were greatly rewarded for their all-out obstructionism throughout the Obama presidency. We can’t control what McConnell et al do, but we can control our reaction to it. Do we get discouraged and frustrated with the lack of progress, or do we get angry with the people whose fault it really is? How we react will be a big factor in determining what the national mood in 2022 is.

I’m already seeing people give their fantasy candidate for Governor. They include the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro (my choice), Cecile Richards, Lina Hidalgo, and others. I don’t know who might actually want to run – it is still early, after all – but we just need to bear in mind that every candidate has their pros and cons, and we need to worry less about matters of personality and more about building coalition and continuing the work we’ve been doing.

For what it’s worth, four themes I’d like to see our eventual candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor emphasize: Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, emergency/disaster preparedness and response, and improving the voter experience, with a focus on online voter registration. The first two have proven they are popular enough to be adopted by voter initiative in deep red states, the third is obvious and should include things like hurricanes, flooding, and drought in addition to pandemics in general and COVID-19 in particular, and the fourth is something there’s already bipartisan support for in the Lege. Let Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick defend the status quo here.

(Increasing the minimum wage was also a ballot initiative winner in states like Florida, and it generally polls well. I very much support raising the minimum wage, but don’t have as much confidence that it would be an electoral winner here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise.)

Here are some numbers to contemplate as we look towards 2022:

I’d attribute the regression in performance in the biggest 15 counties to Republican improvement more than Democrats falling short – as noted multiple times, Democrats hit new highs in the big urban counties, but so did the GOP. There’s still room for growth here, especially in an environment where turnout level is much more volatile, but the marginal growth is smaller now. Putting that another way, there’s no longer a deficit of voter registration in these counties. We need to maintain and keep up with new population growth, but we’re not behind where we should be any more. If we do that, and we prioritize maximizing our own base, we’ll be fine.

It’s the bottom two groups that we need to pay some attention to. A lot of these counties have medium-sized cities in them, and that’s an obvious place to focus some effort. (I’ve been beating that drum for months and months now.) But we really need to do something about the small rural counties, too, or face the reality of huge vote deficits that we can’t control and have to overcome. I know this is daunting, and I have no illusions about how much potential for gain there is here, but I look at it this way: If Donald Trump can convince some number of Black and Latino people to vote for him in 2020, after four years of unrelenting racism and destruction, then surely nothing is impossible. I think marijuana legalization could be a good wedge issue here. Remember, the goal is to peel off some support. A few points in our direction means many thousands of votes.

It’s too early to worry about legislative and Congressional races, because we have no idea what redistricting will wrought. I think we should be prepared for litigation to be of limited value, as it was this decade, and for the Republicans to do as much as they can to limit the number of competitive districts. They may be right about it in 2022, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right in subsequent years.

In Harris County, we should expect competitive primaries for all of the countywide positions, and for many of the judicial spots. Judge Lina Hidalgo has done an outstanding job, but we know there are people who could have run in 2018 who are surely now thinking “that could have been me”. Don’t take anything for granted. We need to keep a close eye on the felony bail reform lawsuit, and news stories about how the current judges are handling bail hearings, because we are going to have to hold some of our folks accountable. We need to make sure that all of the Republican justices of the peace have opponents, especially the ones who have refused to do same-sex marriages.

Overall, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done over the past decade-plus in Harris County. Complacency and disunity will be our biggest opponents. The rest is up to us.

It’s a range, not a number

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


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

SBOE6  387,589  367,658    50.6%    48.0%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words about election security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A comparison to 2012

A lot of the takes on this election – and I’m guilty of this, too – involve comparisons to 2016 and 2018. That’s fair – those are the most recent elections, the only other elections that involve Trump, the patterns that we’ve been seeing had their start in 2016 and accelerated in 2018, which is what led to the inaccurate expectations for this year – but perhaps a slightly broader lens can help illuminate something that I think is being missed right now. So let’s cast our eyes all the way back to the ancient year of 2012, and see where we are today compared to then.

In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama for President by 1,261,719 votes, and by nearly 17 percentage points. Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden by 648,690 votes, which is less than six percentage points. Joe Biden received 1,903,282 more votes than Obama did; Trump received 1,290,243 more votes than Romney did.

In 2012, Republicans won 95 seats in the State House; they would win 98 in 2014, and 95 again in 2016. Ninety-three of those were the same as in 2012; HD21 went red in 2014, and HD107 flipped blue in 2016. I know they’re doing a victory dance about holding onto the 83 seats they won in 2018, but it really needs to be emphasized that with this map that they drew, which gave them at least 95 seats in each of the first three elections where it was used, they were now topped out at 83.

In 2012, Republicans held 19 State Senate seats; they picked up a 20th in 2014. Today they hold 18. In 2012, Republicans held ten SBOE seats; they had won an 11th in 2010 but couldn’t hold it in a normal year. Today they hold nine. In 2012, Republicans held 24 Congressional seats. Today they hold 23. We certainly would have liked for that number to be lower, and we felt we had reasons to believe it would be lower, but it is still lower than it was in 2012.

In 2012 in Harris County, Republicans held all of the county court benches, most of the district court benches, all but one of the First and 14th Courts of Appeals benches (the one held by Dems, which had been won in 2008, would be lost in 2014), four out of five seats on Commissioners Court, and all of the following executive offices: District Attorney, County Clerk, Tax Assessor, District Clerk, Treasurer. Today, Democrats hold all of the county court and district court benches, about half of the appeals court benches, three out of the five seats on Commissioners Court, and all of the executive offices.

You can tell a similar story in Fort Bend County, where Dems now hold a three-out-of-five seat majority on Commissioners Court, and all of the executive seats and judicial positions that had a Democrat running for them in 2018 or 2020.

We can talk about other counties, like Williamson and Tarrant, but you get the idea. I don’t want to downplay the issues that Democrats face, or the disconnect between our goals for 2020 and our accomplishments, but I do want to point out that we’ve come a long way in eight years. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Menefee and Fagan

I’m delighted about the election of Christian Menefee as Harris County Attorney, and look forward to his inauguration.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee, the youngest and first African-American elected Harris County attorney Tuesday evening, took little time to celebrate his historic victory.

By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, he was meeting with the office’s first assistant, beginning the transition process so he can hit the ground running in January. During his campaign, the 32-year-old litigator had pitched himself as a progressive advocate eager to work on issues, including bail reform.

“I ran for this office because I saw that it has a real opportunity to impact life for everyday people,” Menefee said Wednesday. “In every issue, the way I will approach it is, ‘how does this affect the collective good of the people of Harris County?’”

With the full, unofficial results tallied, Menefee bested Republican John Nation by more than 141,000 votes. He defeated three-term incumbent Vince Ryan in the March primary.

Menefee, who has never held public office, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board he wants to aggressively pursue polluters and also be a strong advocate of local control. Harris and other large urban counties in the state, which are run by Democrats, have clashed repeatedly in recent years with Republican state leaders on issues such as the COVID-19 response, eviction policies and election procedures.

The County Attorney’s Office essentially serves as the in-house law firm for Harris County, representing the interests of residents and public officials in lawsuits. Menefee said he wants to immediately fill 15 vacancies among the 120 staff attorney corps, and look to create additional positions in the future.

He said he also wants to help attorneys develop expertise in certain areas, such as election law, so the county can rely less on outside lawyers when those issues arise.

“I want to get the office constituted in a way that best utilizes our resources and puts us in the position to aggressively fight for the things I want to fight for,” Menefee said.

As I have said repeatedly, I thought Vince Ryan was an exemplary County Attorney, and I salute him for his three successful terms in office. But it was clear to me that Menefee had the better vision for the office, and the right attitude to take in this time of increasing hostility from state Republicans towards the values that we vote for in Harris County. He’s the right person for the job, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

Fort Bend is now almost all Democratic at the countywide level (County Clerk, Treasurer, and a couple of County Courts at Law, all unopposed in 2018, are the exceptions), and they made some history with their new Sheriff.

Democrat Eric Fagan made history Tuesday night as Fort Bend County voters elected him to be the county’s first Black sheriff since Reconstruction.

The victory of Fagan, a retired Houston police officer, comes two years after a blue wave brought two other people of color to top jobs in the highly diverse county: Brian Middleton was elected the county’s first Black district attorney, and KP George became its first Indian-American judge.

“Fort Bend is changing. It’s the most diverse county, in not just the state, but in the nation,” Fagan, 60, said of the changing politics. “Its leadership should reflect it.”

Fagan received 53 percent against Nehls, the Precinct 4 constable seeking to succeed his twin brother Troy as sheriff. In a win for Republicans, Troy Nehls was elected to an open congressional seat on Tuesday.

Fagan ran on a progressive platform — promising body cameras for sheriff’s deputies, improved mental health training and better community policing.

County voters hadn’t elected a black sheriff since Reconstruction. In 1869, Walter Moses Burton, a freed slave, was elected sheriff during a brief period of biracial county government following the Civil War. Burton taught himself to read and write and later was elected state senator. In that role, he pushed through a bill that helped establish the Prairie View Normal School, now Prairie View A&M University, which is Fagan’s alma mater.

“He started my school that I graduated from, Prairie View A&M University,” said Fagan. “It’s very historic and very great. It shows that Fort Bend County is growing and they’re embracing the diversity.”

Fagan previously worked for 31 years in the Houston Police Department, including on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s security detail.

Fagan has listed a number of goals, including modifying the county’s 911 dispatch system to allow the closest officer to respond to calls; strengthening relations between the sheriff’s office and the community by creating a citizens review board to review questionable actions; and using mediation more to resolve disputes.

Congratulations and best of luck to you, Sheriff-elect Eric Fagan.

A few observations from the final unofficial countywide data

This is still unofficial, and there will still be some overseas/military ballots to be counted as well as some provisional ballots to be cured, but the count of the votes cast by Election Day is over, and we have the current final totals, broken down by vote type for each race. So let’s have a stroll through the data and see what we come up with.

– While Republican voting strength increased on Election Day compared to mail and early in person voting, Democrats still won Election Day. As far as I can tell, every Democrat who was on the whole county’s ballot beat their Republican opponent on Election Day, except for one: Genesis Draper, the appointed and now elected Judge of County Criminal Court #12, who lost Election Day by about 6,000 votes. She still won her election by 78,000 votes, so no big deal. Te’iva Bell, now the elected Judge of the 339th Criminal District Court, won Election Day by fourteen (yes, 14) votes out of 183,492 ballots cast in that race. She won by just over 100K votes overall.

– Democrats did especially well in mail ballots – in the judicial races, the number was usually around 60% for the Democratic candidate. That staked them to an initial lead of 27-40K, with usually a bit more than 160K mail ballots being cast. It’s amazing to realize how much that has shifted from even the recent past – remember, Republicans generally won the mail ballots in 2018, though they lost them in 2016. I don’t know if they quietly walk back all the hysterical “MAIL BALLOT FRAUD” hyperbole and go back to using this tool as they had before, or if that’s it and they’re all about voting in person now.

– As far as I can tell, no one who was leading at 7 PM on November 3, when the early + mail ballot totals were posted, wound up losing when all the votes were in. No one got Ed Emmett’ed, in other words. Gina Calanni and Akilah Bacy led in mail ballots, but lost early in person votes by enough that they were trailing going into Election Day. Lizzie Fletcher, Ann Johnson, and Jon Rosenthal lost the Election Day vote, but had won both mail and early in person voting, and that lead was sufficient to see them through.

– As noted, a very small percentage of the vote was cast on Election Day – 12.28% of all ballots in Harris County were Election Day ballots. That varied by district, however:


Dist     Total   E-Day   E-Day%
===============================
CD18   251,623  33,109    13.2%
CD29   161,673  30,274    18.7%

SD04    89,122   8,385     9.4%
SD06   187,819  34,996    18.6%

HD133   91,137   8,650     9.5%
HD134  111,639   9,389     8.4%
HD137   33,344   5,035    15.1%
HD140   33,614   7,325    21.8%
HD143   39,153   6,693    17.1%
HD144   32,522   6,989    21.5%
HD145   44,514   7,774    17.5%

Definitely some later voting by Latinos. Note that Sarah Davis won Election Day with 66% of the vote. There just weren’t enough of those votes to make a difference – she netted less than 3K votes from that, not nearly enough to overcome the 10K vote lead Ann Johnson had.

– There’s a conversation to be had about turnout in base Democratic districts. Countywide, turnout was 67.84% of registered voters. Of the strong-D districts, only HD148 (68.58%) exceeded that. Every strong-R or swing district was above the countywide mark, while multiple strong-D districts – HDs 137, 140, 141, 143, 144, and 145 – were below 60%. HD140 had 51.36% turnout, with HD144 at 51.81%. Harris County is strong blue now because Democrats have done an outstanding job of expanding out into formerly deep red turf – this is how districts like HDs 132, 135, and 138 became competitive, with HD126 a bit farther behind. As we discussed in 2018, deepest red districts are noticeably less red now, and with so many votes in those locations, that has greatly shifted the partisan weight in Harris County. But it’s clear we are leaving votes on the table – this was true in 2018 as well, and it was one reason why I thought we could gain so much more ground this year, to make the state more competitive. The focus now, for 2022 and 2024 and beyond, needs to be getting more votes out of these base Democratic districts and precincts. For one thing, at the most basic level, these are our most loyal voters, and we need to pay them a lot more attention. At a practical level, we need more out of these neighborhoods and communities to really put the state in play. We’ve figured out a big part of the equation, but we’re still missing some key pieces. That needs to change.

(Yes, I know, we have just talked about how perhaps some low-propensity Latino voters are much more Republican than their higher-propensity counterparts. We do need a strategy that has some thought and nuance to it, to make sure we’re not committing a self-own. But to put this in crass marketing terms, your strongest customers are the ones who have already bought your product in the past. We need to do better with them, and we start by doing better by them.)

– I’ll have more data going forward, when I get the full canvass. But in the meantime, there was one other group of people who had a propensity for voting on Election Day – people who voted Libertarian. Get a load of this:


Race         E-Day%  Total%
===========================
President     1.89%   1.03%
Senate        3.33%   1.81%
CD02          3.18%   1.59%
CD07          3.57%   1.77%
CD09          5.82%   2.97%
CD22          8.23%   5.33%
RRC           3.62%   2.08%
SCOTX Chief   4.50%   2.35%

You can peruse the other races, but the pattern holds everywhere. Seems to be the case for Green candidates as well, there are just far fewer of them. Not sure what that means, but it’s a fun fact. By the way, the Libertarian candidate in CD22 got 3.87% overall. Not sure why he was so much more popular in Harris County.

Initial thoughts about the election

And now for some reactions and analysis…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Omnibus Election Day post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role Harris County can play in turning Texas blue

Big county + big turnout = big margin.

Texas is not the sort of place national candidates visit just before Election Day or where political ads play on a loop during popular TV shows.

And, yet, here we are: Texas has been declared “in play,” with some polls rating the long solidly red state as a tossup between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

A key reason is decades of rapid growth, as a strong economy drew millions of residents from across the country to Texas, most of them to urban areas — and more residents means more voters.

Harris County alone has grown its voter roll by about 292,000 since the 2016 election, equivalent to absorbing all of registered voters in Galveston County and tacking on another 70,000.

To earn a shot at Texas’ 38 electoral votes, Biden would need to combine a blowout here with sweeps in the state’s other large metros to offset Trump’s expected dominance in rural areas. If that occurs, the Houston area’s newly minted voters likely will play a key role.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of precinct-level voting patterns shows the Houston area’s growth has moved in tandem with Democrats’ widening advantage here in recent elections.

You can read the rest, and I’ll get to some numbers in a minute. But first, the big question is who else is out there to vote?

With 9.7 million ballots already cast across Texas — more than 1 of 7 of them in Harris County — will anyone show up Tuesday?

Well, yes, political scientists and consultants agree, though their estimates of the expected turnout vary.

County voters have already matched the 58 percent total turnout of the 2004 election and are just short of the 61 to 63 percent turnout recorded in the last three presidential contests. Statewide, 57 percent of registered voters have cast ballots.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office expects 200,000 to 300,000 voters to turn out Tuesday. Two Democratic consultants expect about 350,000 — in line with the last two general elections. Two local political scientists think 400,000 is possible, though they differed on whether the higher tally would benefit Democrats or Republicans.

The lower estimate would produce a final tally of about 1.6 million votes, or 66 percent turnout. The higher figure would push turnout close to 75 percent, which would be a modern record, exceeding the 72 percent turnout posted in 1992, when Houstonian George H.W. Bush lost a tough reelection fight to Bill Clinton.

GOP political consultant Kevin Shuvalov expects a more modest mark, saying, “It’s going to be bigger, but we’re not going to have 2 million voters.”

Still, he added, “Looking at who’s left over, there’s a lot of reliable voters still out there who have participated in multiple general elections previously. And then you have a large chunk of voters they just really like to vote on Election Day. They’re traditionalists.”

Democratic consultant Robert Jara echoed that, noting that many older voters are in the habit of casting their ballots at the same nearby Election Day polling place.

“There’s a sense of community, really, of voting in your neighborhood,” Jara said.

Local Latino voters have also disproportionately voted on Election Day in the past, Jara said, noting that Democrats tend to get an Election Day boost from predominantly Latino eastside precincts.

We’ve talked about some of this before, including the propensity of Latino voters to vote later in the cycle. I’m on record saying that I expect 300K or more votes tomorrow – I think we end up over 1.7 million, but maybe not quite at 1.8 million. I’ll be more surprised if we fail to reach 1.7 million than if we exceed 1.8 million.

The thing about these big numbers is that they can, and very likely will, lead to big margins for Joe Biden, bigger perhaps than we might have expected. Remember, when I did my super-simple projection of the vote, one of the assumptions baked in was that turnout levels would be static. If counties like Harris, which will provide a big chunk of the Democratic vote, overperform their expectations, that changes the math. (The same is true for the heavily red counties, but the vast majority of those are small. There’s no equivalent of Harris, or Dallas, or Travis, on the Republican side.)

Here’s what that means in practice. As a reminder, Hillary Clinton carried Harris County by 162K votes in 2016, winning 53.95% of the vote to Trump’s 41.61%. Beto carried Harris County by 201K votes, getting 57.98% to Ted Cruz’s 41.31%. Let’s assume we hit the low end of turnout projections, with 1.7 million total votes. How would that affect Biden’s margins?

53.95% – 41.61% = 210K net votes for Biden
57.98% – 41.31% = 283K net votes for Biden

I think its safe to assume Biden will do better than Clinton’s 53.95% – among other things, the third party vote will be much smaller. Note how both Trump and Cruz were mired in the 41% range – other Republicans did do better, but these two uniquely disliked flag-bearers did particularly poorly. It’s not out of the question that Trump could fail to break 40% in Harris. If we assume a more maximalist final turnout of 1.8 million, and a 60-40 win for Biden, he’ll net 360K votes in Harris County. That’s a lot.

(For what it’s worth, months ago when I was discussing blue-sky scenarios with fellow Dems, I posited a 60-40 win with turnout of 1.5 million, which I thought was reasonably ambitious and assumed a voter registration goal of 2.4 million. Who knew I was actually being restrained?)

Now again, what happens in Harris is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not determinative in and of itself. The number of counties that Trump will carry will far exceed the number of counties that Biden will carry, and while most of those counties will have a small number of voters, there are big ones out there like Montgomery. Republicans can make up the big numbers Dems will post in their few strongholds by posting a lot of 70-30 and 80-20 wins in small and medium-sized counties. Dems will need to at least hold those losses to what they were in 2016 and 2018 to have a manageable deficit to overcome. Longer term, by which I mean 2022 and 2024, Dems will need to figure out how to gain ground in places like Waco and Lubbock and Tyler and New Braunfels and Abilene and Amarillo.

That’s a discussion for another day. Here’s the final Derek Ryan email.

9,677,963 people voted in Texas! That’s 57.1% of all registered voters. To give you some perspective on how crazy that number is, turnout for the ENTIRE 2016 General Election was 59.4%. In 2012, it was 58.6%.

So where does that put us at the brief electoral intermission?

There are still 7.2 million registered voters who have NOT voted. Of those, 3.1 million have voted in a previous election in the last four election cycles (dating back to 2012). If 75% of these people vote on Election Day, that will get us to the 12 million figure I keep throwing out there.

Voters who most recently voted in a Republican Primary have a 432,000 vote advantage over those who most recently voted in a Democratic Primary. Again, it must be pointed out that 4.6 million people who voted early who have no previous primary history.

What has been the participation rate based on voters’ previous election history?

  • 81% of voters with previous Republican Primary history voted early
  • 82% of voters with previous Democratic Primary history voted early
  • 59% of voters with previous General Election history (and no primary history) voted early
  • 29% of voters with no previous General or Primary Election history voted early

[…]

So what should we expect on Election Night? Based on the data, here is what I expect to see. Typically, the first results that are released at 7:01pm are numbers from early voting. In many portions of the state, these results will likely favor Democratic candidates. Then, as results from Election Day trickle in, we will see data that likely favors Republican candidates. In previous election cycles, the opposite has been the case. If you are only following the statewide election results, this will certainly be the case. It is important to note that voting early is a bigger trend in urban and suburban counties more so than in rural counties. For example, the average turnout percentage in the top 20 counties was 58.1%, but in the remaining 234 counties, the average turnout percentage was 48.7%.

Why does that matter? In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 50.8% to Donald Trump’s 44.8% in the top 20 largest counties, but Donald Trump received 70.9% to Hillary Clinton’s 25.9% in the remaining 234 counties.

The report is here. Anyone out there who was waiting till today to vote?

UPDATE: I don’t have any better place to put this, and I only saw it on Monday even though it was published on Friday, but here’s a Chron interview with Chris Hollins that’s worth your time.

Federal judge denies Hotze petition

Hopefully, this will be the end of this particular nonsense.

A federal judge Monday rejected a request by a conservative activist and three Republican candidates to toss out nearly 127,000 votes cast at drive-thru polling sites in Texas’ most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, follows two earlier decisions by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court rejecting similar efforts by Republicans challenging the validity of drive-thru voting in Harris County. Although Hanen’s ruling is still expected to be appealed quickly, it appears to clear the way for counting the early voting drive-thru ballots on Election Day.

In his ruling from the bench, Hanen said he rejected the case on narrow grounds because the plaintiffs did not show they would be harmed if the drive-thru ballots are counted. He noted, however, that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could think differently if the cases reaches them.

If he had ruled on the larger issues in the case, Hanen said he would have rejected the request to toss out votes already cast. But Hanen said he would have shut down Harris County’s drive-thru polling places for Election Day, because the tents being used for the sites don’t qualify as “buildings” under state election law.

“If I were voting tomorrow … I would not vote in a drive-thru just out of my concern as to whether that’s illegal or not,” he said. “I am going to order the county to maintain all the drive-thru voting records … just in case the 5th Circuit disagrees.”

Ten percent of Harris County’s in-person early voters cast their ballots at the county’s 10 drive-thru locations. Dismissing the votes would have been a monumental disenfranchisement of voters in a presidential election besieged with fights over voter suppression and fraud.

The judge ruled from the bench after a hearing with plaintiffs, the county and numerous Texas and national voting rights and political groups joining Harris County to argue that the drive-thru program was legal under Texas election law.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is obviously a great relief, because as ridiculous as this lawsuit was, the cost of an adverse ruling was sky-high. There will be an appeal, but it looks like that will be to stop drive-through voting on Election Day, not to continue the pursuit of throwing these votes out. I think.

On that note: You saw Judge Hanen’s words about voting at a drive-through location today. Drive-through locations will be open today, and if you have the need to use one, then use it. I believe there’s form you can use to attest to your need to vote curbside, which is legally different than drive-through and which is expressly allowed under Texas law (the whole dispute here ultimately boils down to the allegation that drive-through voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting). Otherwise, I agree with the lawyers who say just park and go inside to vote. Don’t take the chance that this could come up again after the election.

Statements from the ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project are beneath the fold, and a statement from the Texas Democratic Party is here. This Twitter thread by Raffi Melkonian is a terrific blow-by-blow account of the hearing and ruling, with some explanations thrown in for the non-lawyers. The Chron, Houston Public Media, the Press, Mother Jones, Politico, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: And so the appeal is happening in the night. Here’s another Twitter thread to keep track. I hope like hell I don’t have to rewrite this whole damn post in the morning.

UPDATE: As of 9 PM, no actual filing yet.

UPDATE: OK, the petition has been filed. They are just asking for drive-through voting to be halted for Election Day. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Hopefully, this is the final final update:

You can see the denial in its glory here. The remaining drive-through location will be at the Toyota Center, which no one can deny is a building; the reason that Judge Hanen would have halted drive-through voting on Election Day is because the law is actually different for Election Day than it is for early voting, specifying “buildings” instead of “structures”. At this point, there really isn’t anything left to litigate. Happy voting to whoever will be doing so today.

(more…)

Today is Election Day

It almost feels unreal, doesn’t it? Like some people have been saying while on line at voting locations, we’ve been waiting four whole years for this. Now it’s here, Texas is considered a swing state, the Lege is in play, multiple Congressional districts are up for grabs, turnout is off the charts. And also we’ve got feral lunatics out on the highways and filing frivolous lawsuits, and of course a malevolent and unpredictable President who’s a coward and a bully but also has a whole lot of minions willing to do dirty work for him. So yeah, these are anxious times.

Your task is to vote, if you haven’t already. And when I say “vote”, I mean vote for Joe Biden and MJ Hegar and Democrats up and down the ballot, because there’s only one way we’re going to get those Trump minions out of power and that’s to vote them out. There are over 800 locations available in Harris County today, with voting from 7 AM to 7 PM. Find a convenient and not-too-crowded location and do the thing. As long as you’re on line by 7 PM you get to vote, but really, don’t wait that long. Make a plan to get there as early as you can.

I will of course be up till all hours this evening following the returns, and will post stuff as I can. The few days after an election are chaotic for me under the most benign and normal of circumstances, so things may be a little weird for the rest of the week. We’ll get through this together. I’m on Twitter and will probably have some things to say while we’re parsing the numbers tonight.

I’m assuming there will be a press release from the County Clerk about today’s voting, and I will add it to this post when I get it. It was a busy day for them yesterday, obviously. I want to thank and congratulate the entire staff of the Clerk’s office, from Chris Hollins on down, for doing such a fantastic job running this election. I truly hope the innovations they implemented and the commitment they showed to making it easier for people to vote become the new normal statewide. Let’s also not forget Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for putting up the money for this. Voting could have always been this convenient. Now that we know that, let’s never go back to how it was before.

I’m not in the predictions business, but feel free to say what you think will happen today in the comments. I’ll have the data when it’s available.

UPDATE: Who needs a press release when you have a Twitter thread?

A few thoughts about Election 2020 before Tuesday

Just a brain dump, to get this all out there before we find out what happened. Let’s start with this:

After the conclusion of three weeks of early voting, 9.7 million Texans have cast ballots, crushing previous early voting totals in the state and setting Texas on a course for record turnout in this Tuesday’s general election.

At least 9,709,376 voters cast early ballots, according to preliminary final numbers released by the Texas Secretary of State and the counties on Saturday morning. That is 57.3% percent of registered voters, just shy of the overall turnout of 59.4% in 2016 by 2 percentage points.

Of those early votes, 8,738,363 were cast in person; 971,013 were cast by mail.

Early voting, which Gov. Abbott extended by six days this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, has already eclipsed total votes during the 2016 general election, when 8,969,226 Texans voted.

Texas has added 1.8 million registered voters since the 2016 election. Texas has not surpassed 60% turnout of registered voters since the early 1990s.

Harris County, Texas’s most populous county, leads the state with 1.4 million votes cast. Among large counties, Collin County outside of Dallas has the highest early voting turnout with 69%.

As we have discussed before, high turnout is generally more favorable to Democrats, but not universally, and there’s been plenty of activity in heavily Republican counties:

Comal County is like Montgomery County’s little brother, and Guadalupe is pretty Republican, too. That said, it’s important to keep in mind the distinctions between “percentages”, especially when we are talking about increases, and absolute numbers. Comal County cast 62K ballots total in 2016; I don’t know what their early voting numbers were in 2016, but a 26% increase over their final turnout would be close to 80K votes. Harris County has had a *net increase* of over 80K votes so far, with Election Day still to come. A 26% increase in total final turnout in Harris County would mean about 1.67 million total voters, or an increase of about 350K from 2016, and at this point that’s the low end. In short, Harris County is big. Always keep that in mind.

If you go back to the Derek Ryan report from Thursday, when “just” nine million people had voted, the electorate at that point was 52.1% female, and 43.4% male. (Not all people specify their gender on their voter registration.) Assuming that hasn’t radically changed as of Friday, that means that something like 800K more women than men have voted in Texas. (In Harris County, the gender ratio was 55.3 to 44.3, a gap of a bit more than 150K.) Given the greater preference for Joe Biden among women, that could be a factor in how this election turns out.

Now let’s talk about how easy, or not-easy, it was to vote in Texas this year. There’s a lot, but I’ll try to be concise. Let’s start with this:

Maybe bullet points will help.

– I agree – and have said on this blog – that the actual impact of the “one dropoff location” order and rulings is minimal. Hell, I didn’t even know that dropping off mail ballots was a thing you could do until this year. I think it’s fair to say that the number of people who have used this option in the past can be counted on your fingers. I don’t know how many people would have used it this election, but even if we’re talking five figures, it’s on the order of five percent of total turnout. People had plenty of other options available to them, including the Reliant Arena dropoff location (which is in many ways more accessible than the Clerk’s office downtown), the US mail, and voting in person. I have a hard time believing anyone was truly disenfranchised by this.

– But all of that is beside the point. The multiple dropoff locations, all at official County Clerk offices, was consistent with the letter and intent of the law, and the amended order to limit them to one, which came more than two months after Harris County announced its dropoff plan, was an obvious partisan exercise that had no basis or reason other than to make voting less convenient, and to slap down an innovative Democratic County Clerk in a heavily Democratic county. On every level, this was a screw-you to Chris Hollins and Harris County.

– Yet even there, we must acknowledge that Greg Abbott did in fact expand access to voting. That third week of early voting was huge – I’m sure that Allen West and the seething hordes of the Republican base are super pissed about that. Plus, the fact that mail ballots could be dropped off during early voting at all was the result of Abbott’s executive order, the same one that allowed for the extra week of early voting. State law as written only allows mail ballots to be dropped off on Election Day. Abbott expanded that. He weaseled out later on, but he was weaseling on himself

– So one might claim, as John Cornyn did on Twitter, that it can’t be all that hard to vote in Texas, because so many people are doing it this year. But once you get past Abbott’s original executive order – which, you may recall, the State GOP and Harris County GOP, among others, tried to kill via the courts – it was local officials, with Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins as the exemplar, backed by $31 million from the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court – that did all the work to make it easier. And again, Republicans from Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton down to dregs like Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, fought them every step of the way.

– Finally, we have to acknowledge that whatever was done to make voting easier this year, we started from a baseline of voting not being easy, in so many ways. One big reason why the effect of the “one mail ballot dropoff location per county” ruling was minimal is precisely because access to mail ballots is so limited, and we saw that play its way out in the courts. If counties had to spend large amounts of money setting up early voting locations, it’s in part because the Legislature took away the option of temporary voting locations in the 2019 session, not to mention the removal of straight-ticket voting, which meant it would take longer for people to vote and might lead to longer lines at voting locations. We haven’t even talked about Texas’ notoriously strict voter ID law, or its refusal to allow online voter registration or same-day voter registration, or its recent efforts to purge voter rolls, or the problems of how hard it is for people with disabilities to vote, and on and on and on. If we have heroic levels of turnout this year, it’s in spite of all these obstacles.

– So my bottom line is that while turnout this year has been truly remarkable, and I hope that the results will be equally remarkable, none of this should obscure the fact that we have a lot of room to improve. And the only way that will happen is if we win enough election to make the systemic changes we need.

Hope that wasn’t too long. I’m out of thoughts for now. Go vote if you haven’t already.

SCOTX rejects Hotze petition to throw out drive through votes

One piece of good news.

A legal cloud hanging over nearly 127,000 votes already cast in Harris County was at least temporarily lifted Sunday when the Texas Supreme Court rejected a request by several conservative Republican activists and candidates to preemptively throw out early balloting from drive-thru polling sites in the state’s most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The all-Republican court denied the request without an order or opinion, as justices did last month in a similar lawsuit brought by some of the same plaintiffs.

The Republican plaintiffs, however, are pursuing a similar lawsuit in federal court, hoping to get the votes thrown out by arguing that drive-thru voting violates the U.S. constitution. A hearing in that case is set for Monday morning in a Houston-based federal district court, one day before Election Day. A rejection of the votes would constitute a monumental disenfranchisement of voters — drive-thru ballots account for about 10% of all in-person ballots cast during early voting in Harris County.

[…]

Curbside voting, long available under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office argued that its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore can be available to all voters. The clerk’s filing with the Supreme Court in the earlier lawsuit also said the Texas secretary of state’s office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

Plus, the county argued in a Friday filing that Texas’s election code, along with court rulings, have determined that even if the drive-thru locations are violations, votes cast there are still valid.

“More than a century of Texas case law requires that votes be counted even if election official[s] violate directory election laws,” the filing said.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad to see SCOTX affirm my faith in them. They’re partisan, but I didn’t think they would want to set their reputations, and the court’s legitimacy, on fire for such a blatant and sloppy effort to disenfranchise thousands of people. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

There’s still the matter of that federal lawsuit, for which there will be a hearing this morning at 10:30. I have no idea when there might be a ruling – it’s not out of the question that the judge could rule immediately upon the completion of the hearing – but it’s still looming out there. If you were one of the 126K+ drive-through voters, you can add yourself to the lawsuit as an intervenor, and put your experience on the record. Just fill out this form – quickly, the hearing is at 10:30 as noted – and you’ll have done your part. Here’s hoping. The Statesman has more.

UPDATE: From Twitter:

The attached brief is custom-made to convince a partisan Republican judge to throw out the plaintiffs’ petition. Let’s hope this helps.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astros ticketholder lawsuit update

I share because I care.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked the state 14th Court of Appeals to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit filed by three groups of disgruntled ticketholders, repeating many of the same arguments in favor of dismissal that they presented to a Harris County district court earlier this year.

Along with repeating their claim that the suit should be tossed because the ballclub is protected by the Texas Citizens Participation Act, attorneys say a courtroom is not the proper venue to chasten the Astros for the decision of players in 2017-18 to use electronic means to steal signals in violation of Major League Baseball’s rules.

“No court in the United States has ever allowed fans or other members of the public to sue for how a sport is played, and Texas should not be the first jurisdiction that allows such claims,” the Astros said in their 78-page brief filed with the court this week.

If such claims were allowed, the ballclub added, “The courtroom would become the solace for any sports fan who has felt the pang of disappointment in a team’s strategy choices. In these divided times, appellate courts throughout the nation have united on one point: claim for disappointment in how a team played the game on the field – be it a rule violation or a performance fiasco – are not justiciable.”

The cases wound up before the 14th Court when state District Judge Robert Schaffer denied the Astros’ motion for summary judgment in proposed class action suits filed by ticketholders Adam Wallach, Roger Contreras and Kenneth Young, who allege they were defrauded into buying tickets by the Astros’ public relations campaign urging fans to buy tickets.

The Astros claim the ballclub is protected under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which allows a judge to dismiss a case in which one of the parties is exercising the right of free speech, right to petition or right of association regarding discussions about a public figure or entity.

Schaffer suggested that the case go to the 14th Court to decide procedural matters before returning to his court for a potential rehearing on the summary judgment dismissal sought by the Astros, and the Astros then filed their appeal.

See here for the background. A copy of the appellate motion is in the Chron story. I believe this case is the consolidation of all of the Harris County lawsuits; there is still the California lawsuit that the Astros either want dismissed or moved to Texas, but I’ve lost track of it at this point. I still don’t believe any of this will go anywhere, but it will at least keep us occupied for the foreseeable future.

Hotze and Woodfill take their fight against drive-thru voting to federal court

Just another quiet Saturday…

Mark can be a bit of an alarmist, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. For what it’s worth, Rick Hasen thinks this suit is without merit, though again worth worrying about given the deranged nature of parts of the federal judiciary these days.

Mark Stern flagged this new lawsuit filed in federal court which seeks to throw out over 100,000 ballots cast by Harris County, Texas voters who voted using drive-thru voting in Texas. There was an earlier lawsuit in state court seeking to block this means of voting on grounds that it purportedly violated Texas law, but the Texas Supreme Court rejected that claim. This new lawsuit is making the same novel claims under the “independent state legislature” doctrine that any actions by any state court or state agency not specifically authorized by the legislature is an unconstitutional usurpation of the legislature’s power. It’s this same audacious and unproven theory that formed the background for the outrageous 8th Circuit order this week over segregating ballots in Minnesota. The lawsuit has been assigned to Judge Hanen (a judge who had struck down all of Obamacare at one point before being reversed), who has already scheduled a hearing.

On the merits, this case should be a sure loser, but given how crazy things are getting in the federal courts these days, I cannot be 100 percent confident in my predictions. Here are some of the reasons this suit should be thrown out decisively

You can click over and read Hasen’s reasons, and you can read these threads by law professor Michael Morley and Buzzfeed News reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy for more reasons. You should also remember that at the end of the day, Jared Woodfill is a complete moron, and anything that relies on his legal acumen is likely to fall well short of the mark. Again, that doesn’t mean that a pliant federal judge won’t give him what he wants. It just means that would be the only reason why he’d succeed. Democracy Docket has intervened, and Josh Marshall, whose post alerted me to Mark Joseph Stern’s tweets, has more.

In the meantime, the State Supreme Court will also be dealing with this tomorrow.

The Texas Supreme Court drew alarmed attention Friday after directing Harris County to respond to a petition that seeks to invalidate more than 117,000 votes cast in drive-thru lanes.

The court’s interest came as an unwelcome surprise to voting advocates and Harris County officials who were banking on a quick dismissal of the petition, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House.

[…]

The petition — filed by state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, GOP activist Steven Hotze and two Republican candidates in Harris County — argued that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

The court responded by giving Harris County until 4 p.m. Friday to file a legal brief responding to the petition, raising fears that the Supreme Court was giving consideration to tossing out tens of thousands of ballots.

However, it takes only one justice on the nine-member court to request a response to a petition, and there is no way of knowing how many justices were interested in Harris County’s response because the court does not disclose that information.

In addition, before tossing out the votes, the court would have to acknowledge that 117,000 Harris County voters had visited a drive-thru polling site by Thursday night, including more than 42,000 drive-thru votes that were cast since justices first had a chance to stop the practice a week earlier but did not.

In a memo prepared for Harris County on the issue, noted Austin lawyer C. Robert Heath said the bid to void drive-thru votes faces the daunting challenge of overcoming a key legal supposition — that state laws are to be interpreted in favor of preserving the right to vote.

“If a court or other authority were to decide to invalidate those votes, it would require ignoring or overruling more than a century of Texas law,” Heath concluded.

In the brief requested by the Supreme Court, Harris County lawyers argued that there is nothing illegal about drive-thru voting, nor can votes cast that way be considered illegal.

“Uncountable votes are those that resulted from clear fraudulent behavior,” they argued. “There is nothing about an eligible voter casting an in-person vote from their car that renders their vote illegal, fraudulent, or not countable.”

The brief argued that drive-thru voting is just another polling choice with a different structure. Vehicles enter the voting area, typically a large individual tent, one at a time. A clerk checks each voter’s photo ID and has them sign a roster before handing over a sanitized voting machine.

More importantly, the county said, drive-thru voting was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted and was used, without objection, in the July primary runoff election.

Reform Austin also covered this, with a focus on Harris County’s response, so go check that out. This is another reason why we need comprehensive legislation, at both the state and national levels, to clarify, affirm, and assert the right to vote, and to explicitly ratify different methods to expand voting access. If nothing else, that is needed to ward off future bullshit lawsuits like these.

As for this one, I maintain my belief that SCOTX is unlikely to do anything radical. You are free to freak out as you see fit over either of these.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

UPDATE: If you participated in drive-through voting and want to intervene in this federal lawsuit, fill out this form.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make it easier to vote

The ease of access for disabled voters is still a huge unaddressed issue.

Val Vera finally cast his ballot after sitting for two hours in his van outside a Denton County polling place. He wasn’t waiting on people in line ahead of him, but for an elections clerk to respond to his phone calls.

Vera, 52, is disabled and decided to vote curbside this election, an option every county is required to offer any voter whose health would be harmed by entering the polls, or who is physically incapable of doing so.

“In an ideal world, curbside voting at your polling site, there’s the designated parking spot,” said Molly Broadway, voting rights specialist at Disability Rights Texas. “There’s a sign that lets you know that this is where curbside voting is going to happen, and there’s a call button, essentially, that one can access, which will alert the poll worker inside the building of your presence.”

For millions of disabled Texas voters, casting a ballot has long been challenging enough, even without a pandemic and explosive turnout in a high-octane election cycle. Using curbside voting, mail-in ballots and other aids, they must navigate a system that in some parts of Texas has been slow to accommodate their needs.

With fears of contracting COVID-19 compelling more voters to explore options to avoid setting foot in a polling place, disability rights advocates say the process has become an exercise in persistence for even more disabled voters.

In 2012, 30% of disabled voters nationwide reported difficulties at polling places, according to a Rutgers University study. In Texas, a newer Rutgers study estimates, about 15% of those eligible to vote in the general election are disabled — almost 3 million people.

Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, professors who helped conduct the study, said lack of accessibility causes disabled people to vote at lower rates than the general population. Without barriers, they estimate, 3 million more disabled Americans would have voted in 2012. Though it’s hard to determine the extent without solid data, the pandemic could limit people’s access even further.

[…]

Disability Rights Texas tries to help voters navigate hurdles they run into at the polls. This year, Broadway said, increased voter turnout, coupled with increasing visibility for disability rights over the past few years, has spawned more calls than usual, and not just for curbside voting.

Chase Bearden, deputy executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said his organization heard reports of long lines at one polling place that strayed into grassy patches difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Matt Plummer, a wheelchair user, said when he went to vote in Tarrant County, his wife had to make selections for him because he couldn’t reach the touch screen at the back of the machine.

Disabled voters in Texas are also allowed to use mail-in ballots, which helps some voters, but those aren’t entirely accessible either.

Kenneth Semien Sr. said he considered voting by mail but decided to go in person. To submit a mail-in ballot, Semien would have to rely on someone else to mark it for him because he is blind. Not only would that strip away his independence, he said, but he also would have no assurance the person was actually marking his choices instead of their own. Semien is involved in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the Texas secretary of state that is seeking more accessible mail-in ballots, and he thought an alternative way to vote would be available by the time November rolled around.

Instead, Semien cast his ballot in person at the same polling location he’s used in Jefferson County for the past 15 years. Once he arrived, a security guard he knew helped guide him through the line, telling him where to walk so he could stop on the taped X’s on the floor.

As he stepped up to vote, he said, the poll worker took a long time finding where to plug his headphones in so his screen reader could read the ballot to him. Such technical issues sometimes leave people unable to vote, and this one almost made Semien miss his bus back home.

Each time before he goes to vote, Semien calls ahead to make sure the polling location will have someone on staff trained to use the accessible voting machine. Typically, he said, he’s told what he wants to hear, but problems crop up when he arrives.

“It is just terrible that you have to keep repeating these things, but every time we go to the polls we deal with some of the same issues, you know, if the equipment is not available for some reason, they hadn’t gotten set up yet, even though I called before,” Semien said.

I searched my archives but didn’t find a post about Kenneth Semien’s lawsuit – there’s been so many voting rights lawsuits this year I just can’t keep up with them all – but I found this story and a copy of the complaint via Google.

A big part of this is voting locations. Harris County settled a lawsuit last year about the accessibility of its voting locations. Our county, led by County Clerk Chris Hollins, did a tremendous amount to make it easier for everyone to vote – usually over the objections and legal obstacles thrown up by Republicans – but it would be good to review what worked and what still needs improvement. This is going to take a law – really, there should be both state and federal legislation to address this – and money, but most of all it will take commitment, both to listening to the community and their advocates, and following through on what they need. We can absolutely improve this experience for millions of Americans, including millions of Texans, but we have to do the work.

Paxton trial move back to Collin County on hold

Delay is the natural state of being in this saga. I don’t know why we’d ever expect anything else.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court has pressed pause on a ruling that would have allowed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to stand trial for felony securities fraud in his hometown of Collin County.

That Oct. 23 ruling came three years after the case was first sent to Harris County, with prosecutors arguing they could not get a fair trial prosecuting Paxton in a part of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, are deeply politically connected.

Paxton is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston has, for now, blocked the case from resuming in Collin County — likely further delaying the five-year-old case — as it considers the issues.

See here for the previous update. The Chron adds a few details.

The case was moved to Harris County after a judge ruled in 2017 that Paxton’s Republican political connections in Collin County would give him an unfair advantage at trial. But that decision has been under judicial review now for three years as Paxton’s defense team and the special prosecutors appointed in the case battle over the venue.

The prosecutors applauded the latest decision by 1st Court of Appeals Judge Gordon Goodman, a Democrat elected in 2018 as his party swept judicial races.

“The ruling of the court was not unexpected as the law and facts are very straightforward,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the prosecutors. “We are optimistic that the Court of Appeals will do the right thing, and Ken Paxton will face justice in front of a Houston jury.”

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers had argued that the case should have never been moved in the first place, because the judge made the decision after his assignment to the case had expired.

In June, Harris County state District Judge Robert Johnson ruled in Paxton’s favor and moved the case to Collin County. But the 1st Court of Appeals struck that order about a month later, after Johnson recused himself from the case because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

The case was then reassigned to Harris County Jason Luong, a Democrat and former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Luong agreed the case should be sent back to Collin County based on his interpretation Johnson’s ruling, and he did not discuss where he believed Paxton would receive a fair trial.

The prosecutors had argued in their appeal that Luong misinterpreted the law.

Just to recap, and I’m totally relying on this Chron story rather than spending an hour digging through my own archives, but the case was first moved from Collin County to Harris County because the judge at the time, a Tarrant County jurist who had been appointed as a visiting judge precisely because no Collin County judge could handle the initial hearings, agreed with the prosecutors’ argument that Paxton would get preferential treatment in his home county. All the arguments since then have been about technicalities. It’s surely a safe bet that this current dispute will wind up before the Court of Criminal Appeals, just as the previous ones did. It’s not at all far-fetched to think that Paxton’s more recent legal troubles will see the inside of courtroom before this case does.

Idle yet hilarious thought: How much do you think Paxton will want to move the case back to Collin County if it flips blue and votes for Joe Biden this year?

Anyway. Settle in, or stay settled in if you never bothered to settle out. This will take awhile.

Once again with Asian-American voters

Long story in the Trib, on a topic that could use more focus.

Rep. Gene Wu

When Debbie Chen temporarily closed her Houston restaurant in March due to the coronavirus, she was worried about her health and her financial livelihood.

But as a Chinese American, she was also worried about vandalism and her physical safety, given how President Donald Trump and others were blaming China for the pandemic and using racist monikers for the virus.

Seven months later, as Texans head to the polls in the 2020 elections, she hasn’t forgotten. Chen works on Asian American and Pacific Islander voter turnout every year, but this year she feels even more motivated.

“I was so afraid someone would get attacked,” Chen said. Trump’s rhetoric “perpetuates this stereotype that Asians are foreigners or something.” [Read more about Chen’s experience during the coronavirus here.]

Voters who share Chen’s feelings could have a major impact on the 2020 elections. The share of Asian Americans nationwide remains less than 5% of the total electorate. But it’s the fastest growing racial or ethnic voting group in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Texas, there are sizable Asian American communities in districts that hold an outsized importance this year. Democrats are hopeful that they can flip nine seats in the state House to gain a majority in the lower chamber ahead of next year’s legislative session. Key among those efforts are nine seats held by Republicans in which former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, received more votes than U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018. In two-thirds of those districts, the Asian share of the population is more than double the statewide share. Multiple U.S. House seats targeted by Democrats have large Asian American populations, too.

“There are some districts where there’s a significant enough level of organization and voters that can make a difference if it’s a matter of turnout and the races are close enough,” said Madeline Hsu, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Asian American voters are hardly a monolith. While the Indian American population has leaned reliably Democratic for years, Vietnamese Americans tend to lean Republican. And Filipino Americans are more evenly divided.

Since 2016, Trump has made small inroads with Vietnamese and Indian Americans but lost support among Chinese Americans, according to polls from the Asian American Voter Survey.

But recent polling also suggests that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who are sometimes referred to collectively as the AAPI community, overall may turn out in higher numbers for Democrats in 2020.

“You had this ‘Chinese Americans for Trump’ phenomenon in 2016 and it looked like that was a group that was maybe going to go conservative over time,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside political science professor who runs a survey on Asian American voters. “But his support has actually gotten worse among Chinese Americans. It’s not just the anti-China rhetoric, but all the bigotry he unleashed during the coronavirus is hurting.”

There’s more, so go read the rest. I’ve covered this topic before, so there’s not much to add. (There was also an earlier story in the Trib that I didn’t get around to.) I wish there was some Asian-American voter-specific polling done in Texas, the way Latino Decisions does the same for that community, but for now I need to keep waiting. As with Latino voters, the key here is engagement – these folks will vote more Democratic than Republican, but you have to make an effort to get them to vote. They’re just not used to candidates and campaigns speaking to them, which is something that those of us who always vote sometimes have a hard time understanding. Sri Kulkarni made a point of doing that in his 2018 campaign, and it’s a key to 2020 as well. Whatever happens, I hope there’s an effort made after the election to figure out how it went with this community.