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Harris County

The coronavirus doesn’t care about your rugged individualism

Put a pin in this story, and let’s see how things are in a week, and in two weeks.

Reports of COVID-19 cases might not be as prevalent outside of the metropolitan areas, and official actions have been slower and less restrictive.

In Midland, many residents have continued their normal routines, shopping in grocery stores and at busy retail locations. The city hasn’t issued restrictive orders but has been talking about it. There’s a striking parallel between the places restricting social gathering and the political map, but that’s not what some politicians see.

“I don’t know if it’s a red versus blue thing; it’s a human nature thing,” said Jack Ladd Jr., a member of the Midland City Council. “A lot of people want to see something like this before they react.”

That visibility is increasing as cases pop up in Midland. And the county recorded its first death attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, this week, which has prompted more discussion from public leaders.

Midland had four known cases as of Wednesday, and they were up to six cases as of Thursday. They don’t know where people may have gotten the disease.

Lubbock stopped short of telling residents to stay at home, but it did put restrictions in place. Lubbock’s emergency order, Mayor Dan Pope said, “is like the stay-at-home orders elsewhere, without the panic in it.”

“You know West Texas,” he said. “We have a little more common sense … and a healthy sense of skepticism.

“I would say people are in two camps — those who have bought in and understand and are really staying home, and another group that’s harder to reach,” he said.

He said Lubbock’s two hospitals are well situated at the moment — they can open another 40 ICU beds if needed — and added that “we don’t have any stress on our health care system” at this time. As of Thursday, the city had a drive-through testing center, and he said it plans to have a total of four by Monday. Lubbock County had 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, he said.

You know what else the city of Lubbock has? A population density that’s close roughly the same as the city of Houston:

Lubbock, population 255,885, area 123.6 square miles = 2,070 people per square mile.

Houston, population 2,325,502, area 1,062 square miles = 2,189 people per square mile.

Now sure, Houston is an international travel and business hub, with multiple central business districts, and it is surrounded by millions of other people, in Harris and other counties, while Lubbock is mostly in the middle of empty space. But you know, those 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lubbock County (population 307K) represents one case per 16K residents. In Harris County, with 4.7 million people and 135 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, that ratio is one per 35K residents. I’m just saying.

Now of course the real numbers are higher, and even if I knew the exact totals right now they’d be obsolete by the time you read this. My point is, they’re going in one direction at this time, and their ultimate trajectory depends entirely on our actions, not our attitudes or innate qualities. I hope, I really hope, that the people of Lubbock and Midland and anyplace else where people are mostly moving about without much care about coronavirus don’t come to regret their actions later.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

We are doing a good job of keeping our distance

That’s what our phone say, anyway.

Harris County residents are doing a good job keeping their distance, according to location data culled from smartphones, earning an “A” on a nationwide scoreboard.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard is a creation of Unacast, a Norway-based company that provides location data for business clients. The tool tracks the decrease of movement by people in a location over time to determine whether they are staying at home and assigns a letter grade, drilling down to the county level. The grade is tracked against the number of COVID-19 cases in each location.

It does not track whether people are staying six feet apart from each other — yet.

[…]

Overall, the United States scores a “B,” with the District of Columbia doing the best job of social distancing, followed by Alaska. Texas gets an A overall, as does Harris County.

Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, gets the highest score in Texas; Oldham County, west of Amarillo, has the worst.

You can fool around with the Social Distancing Scoreboard here. It gets its data from various smartphone apps – thank you for turning on location services, by the way – though it doesn’t specify which apps, per the Washington Post. The data for Texas was last updated on March 21, prior to all of the stay-at-home directives, so one would expect the mobility levels to drop further. It’s a good start, at least.

The difference a week makes

Imposing a stay-at-home order sooner rather than later ha a profound effect on how many people come down with coronavirus.

The person-to-person spread of the coronavirus in the Houston region would peak in two weeks and burn out by mid-May if the stay-at-home order invoked Tuesday is continued until then, according to modeling by local scientists.

The modeling, which informed Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order, considered the effect on the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, if she’d taken the stringent intervention immediately or waited a week or two weeks to act. Spread would increase exponentially had she waited, it found.

“From our modeling, it was clear that waiting is not a good thing,” said Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, who conducted the study with a biostatistician at that Houston institution. “The numbers are sobering, but the message is clear: early intervention is better than late intervention and more stringent intervention is better than less stringent.”

UTHealth released the modeling data as the city of Houston began gearing up — scouting sites that easily can be converted into medical centers, looking for hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients who cannot isolate at home or in a hospital — for what’s expected to be the next, worse phase of the pandemic: the exponential increase in disease numbers.

[…]

The UTHealth modeling, shared with city and county officials Monday, provided data backing the warnings. It found that intervening immediately would limit the number of cases in the region to a peak at about 150 a day around April 7 and stop the spread around May 12. In that time, the cumulative total of cases would reach nearly 3,500, it found.

Cases would peak at more than 1,000 a day on April 15 if Hidalgo had waited a week and more than 6,600 a day on April 22 if she’d waited two weeks. Transmission would last until May 29 under the first scenario and June 16 under the second.

All three of the scenarios are based on the premise the restrictions would continue until mid-May. Hidalgo’s order is scheduled to expire April 3.

This is what “exponential growth” means. The basic idea is that if everyone is out there living their normal lives, anyone who has coronavirus – remember, it takes about a week for people to become symptomatic, so you can be walking around for quite some time not knowing you have it, infecting people wherever you go – will be spreading the disease to a larger number of people, who will then do the same thing, than if everyone were at home where they will encounter far fewer people. This is one of the reasons why South Korea was as successful as it was at stopping the spread in that country – they jumped on this kind of action right away. (They also did a crapload of testing and were able to aggressively track people’s movements, but never mind that for now.) For that matter, look at the difference between Kentucky and Tennessee. Which outcome would you prefer?

Point is, putting the stay-at-home restrictions in place now, or even later, after the disease has had time to spread even if the known number of infections is still low, would mean we’ve given it an unfettered head start. That’s the scenario we need to avoid, and it’s the reason why the death wish cultists aren’t just wrong, they’re deeply dangerous. Listen to the experts. The fondest hope we have right now is that in a few weeks, when we can think about beginning to go back to normal, we can say it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. We have a chance for that now.

UPDATE: Read this. Look at the chart. Consider this excerpt: “It means that on average, every infected person infects three other people, not 2.5 other people—which makes the spread of the virus much wider and faster. Without any control measures, for example, it means that after ten generations a single person will be responsible for 80,000 infections instead of 10,000 infections.” That’s what we’re talking about here.

Astros move to dismiss season ticket holder lawsuits

How about some non-coronavirus baseball-related news? I got some for ya.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked Harris County district judges to dismiss the three lawsuits filed against the ballclub by ticketholders who claim they were defrauded by the sign-stealing scandal in 2017-18.

In each case, attorneys for the ballclub say ticketholders lack standing to file suit, that their claims against the team are barred by the statute of limitations and that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which a court could grant a judgment against the Astros.

Each answer describes the Astros’ system of electronic sign-stealing as “a source of great disappointment to Astros fans as well as to the Astros organization” and notes that individual players and owner Jim Crane have offered apologies.

“There is, however, no legal standing for season ticket holders … to recover damages for their disappointment over the Astros’ performance for any of the seasons they may have been implicated in the controversy,” the filings add.

“As many courts have held, a ticket holder has only the right to enter a venue and to have a seat for the ticketed game, and cannot complain afterwards that the game should have been played differently.

“The plaintiffs here do not allege that they were deprived of those rights, and they were not. Therefore, defendants deny that the plaintiffs are entitled to any relief in a court of law.”

The Astros seek dismissal of all three lawsuits and ask that they be awarded costs for their defense.

See here for the background, and listen to this episode of Effectively Wild for actual legal analysis of these and other lawsuits related to the banging scheme. As noted in my previous post, each was filed in a different court in Harris County, which may possibly be a complicating factor. I still think these will all ultimately be dismissed, but you never know. The Astros and others still face the fantasy baseball lawsuit, which they have also moved to dismiss. Hey, I didn’t say this was baseball-content baseball news, just that it wasn’t coronavirus-related baseball news. Gotta take what you can get these days.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

Here’s hoping we won’t have to do this for too much longer.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning closing most businesses and directing residents to stay put except for groceries and errands in the latest measure aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. and expire April 3.

Workers in the energy, transportation, construction and food service industries will be among those allowed to remain on the job, she said.

The county judge said she was heeding the warnings of health experts, who for days said a mandatory order limiting public interactions was necessary to prevent Houston hospitals from being overwhelmed with cases.

“What these experts and leaders tell us is that if we keep going at the rate we are going, we will end up in the situation that New York is heading towards, that Italy is at, where we simply run out of ICU space,” Hidalgo said.

Italy has reported more than 6,000 deaths; New York is the center of the American outbreak and scrambling to find beds for coronavirus patients.

The rules are the strictest Harris County has enacted in the two whirlwind weeks since the first locally transmitted case was discovered. Thirteen days ago, local officials wondered whether shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was too drastic a step.

They since have shuttered schools and universities, canceled concerts and sporting events, closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, all in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the disease.

The new stay-at-home restrictions, which have no precedent in modern American history, mirror those in other major cities. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the order was difficult to issue, though he said local government cannot wait.

“The goal we have in the city of Houston is that we don’t have 2,400 cases or 24,000 cases,” Turner said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road and then deciding this is the time to take these steps.”

[…]

Harris County’s new rules were not met with universal acclaim. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a frequent critic of local government, said it was unnecessary and would do lasting harm to small and medium-sized businesses. He said compliance with social distancing recommendations by the public has been “quite high.”

“Taking sweeping action against… the backbone of our local economy with a shelter in place order eliminates the chance to take a targeted, measured, data-driven approach to achieve better social separation results and far less economic disruption,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

See here for the background, and you can see a copy of the order here. As of yesterday afternoon, Fort Bend County has followed suit, though Montgomery County is not going that route at this time. As for Paul Bettencourt, I invite him to swap bodily fluids with Dan Patrick and hope it all works out for him. I’ll prefer to listen to people who know what they’re talking about and care about whether people live or die.

In the meantime:

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

“It’s clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed,” Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. “That’s why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

“We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement,” Abbott added.

[…]

However, Abbott’s remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was “surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road.” (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight.)

Can’t wait to hear what Bettencourt and Patrick think about that. I mean look, this is already hard, and it will be harder before it begins to get easier. I really am worried about the restaurant scene, which now I can’t do anything to support. I’m hopeful that the stimulus bill will make a difference. (The stock market likes it, which is all that matters to Donald Trump.) But you know what else would be bad for the economy? Having two million people die over the next year. We can still do something about that, but not if we listen to people like Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

Harris County settles lawsuit about voter registration records

I’m not sure what to make of this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a victory for government transparency, Harris County officials settled a lawsuit Tuesday with a conservative voting rights group, agreeing to disclose records of foreign nationals who voted in Texas elections and records documenting their attempts to register.

The Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation behind the lawsuit is headed by J. Christian Adams, a voting-fraud crusader. He served in the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush and was later tapped to serve on the Trump administration’s election integrity commission, which set out to clean up voting rolls around the country and prevent non-citizens from casting ballots.

Critics said his organization was hunting for a problem that didn’t exist, targeting low-income, left-leaning localities with a string of lawsuits that sought personal documents related to voters.

Adams characterized the agreement as “the best possible outcome for clean elections in Texas” and said his group intends to use the data to catalog and provide stakeholders with information on problems that allow foreigners to get on voter rolls.

Adams’ group PILF targeted Harris County in a March 2018 voting-rights lawsuit based on testimony from former voter registrar Mike Sullivan, a Republican, before the Texas House of Representatives alleging that for nearly two decades, officials had refused to comply with the federal law mandating inspection. The group’s presumption, according to internal briefs, was “not if, but how many aliens are getting onto Texas rolls, and voting?”

As PILF’s general counsel, Adams participated in the negotiated settlement with the county’s Democratic voter registrar, Ann Harris Bennett, in which the county agreed to provide records of people taken off the voter roll due to ineligibility and names of those who received “notices of examination” where their eligibility was questioned by election officials. The county also agreed to provide records dating back to 2013, including copies of voter registration applications with blank or negative responses to questions about their citizenship.

The county also said it would provide lists of registrants who were stricken from rolls after they were disqualified from jury service due to their non-citizenship as well as all communications between the registrar’s office and law-enforcement entities regarding registrants who were ineligible to vote.

What the county refused to provide were responses to jury summons from people who said they weren’t citizens. Instead, the county would provide the conclusions of its own findings about who shouldn’t be on the rolls.

See here for the background. I wish this story provided more context, because J. Christian Adams is a major bad guy, whom Rick Hasen calls “one of the Four Horsemen of voter suppression”. I don’t see a blog pot by Hasen about this lawsuit at this time, but you can see a list of his previous mentions of PILF here. I actually reached out to Hasen to ask him his thoughts, but with all that is going on right now he said he had not followed this story and wasn’t read up on it.

It’s clear that large parts of this story were lifted directly from a press release from PILF (I swear, it’s hard not to giggle when reading that name), with a bunch of their puffery left in for no obvious reason. Note that the settlement is about voter registrations and not actual votes cast, which is what Adams claimed to be searching for but didn’t get. Later on, Doug Ray of the County Attorney’s office noted that the plaintiffs wanted unredacted information from them, but were not given that, either. So, it’s a little hard to take this all that seriously, and I haven’t seen any chatter about this on Facebook from local Dems. Commissioners Court will have to approve this settlement as well (it’s possible they already have, it’s not clear from the story and I haven’t gone scanning through recent Court agendas), so I hope to see some reaction from the likes of the HCDP and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. Unless I begin to hear otherwise, I’d say this is much ado about nothing much.

The state of the state’s response

I mean, it’s something.

Gov. Greg Abbott took multiple measures Sunday designed to expand hospital staffing and capacity in Texas, but declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order — even as calls for such an action increased as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the state.

In an effort to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Abbott ordered health care professionals to postpone “all surgeries that are not medically necessary” and suspended regulations to allow hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room.

But he did not order all Texans to shelter in place, noting that there are still many counties in the state without confirmed cases and that he wants to see the full impact of an executive order he issued Thursday. In the meantime, he welcomed local officials to take more restrictive action than he has statewide.

During an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol in Austin, Abbott also announced the formation of a “strike force” to respond to the coronavirus and that the Texas National Guard, which he activated several days ago, would be deployed this week to help hospitals deal with the outbreak.

In the lead-up to Abbott’s news conference, though, attention centered most intensely on whether he would go beyond the executive order that he issued Thursday. That order urged all Texans to limit public gatherings to 10 people, prohibited eating in at restaurants and bars and temporarily closed schools. That order went into effect midnight Friday and goes through midnight April 3.

“We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order,” Abbott said. “What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19.”

[…]

Abbott said that his decision not to issue a statewide order should not stop local officials from issuing such orders in their jurisdictions.

“Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas, “Abbott said. “If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so, but at this time it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state, especially at a time when we are yet to see the results coming out of my most recent executive order.”

See here for the background. I can see the reason for Abbott’s actions, or lack thereof. It’s not clear that this is necessary for rural areas, and for the most part the localities that have needed such action have taken it themselves. (Insert reminder about Abbott’s self-serving relationship with the concept of “local control” here.) Indeed, the next story the Trib ran is about Dallas County prepping a shelter-in-place order. (Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has said she is considering such an order but has not yet announced one.) At least some hospitals have already acted to limit or suspend elective procedures as well. What all of this does is mostly make me think that Abbott is behind the curve rather than ahead of it. You know I don’t think much of our Governor, but even for him this seems kind of limp. What could he be doing that isn’t already being done? That’s what I’d like to know.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

Reducing the coronavirus risk in jail

This is an obvious step to take.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

More than 8,500 people are housed inside the Harris County jail, and thousands more move through the building and return to their communities each day to keep the criminal justice juggernaut running.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez likens the situation to three massive ships docked in downtown Houston. An outbreak of COVID-19 in this setting could be catastrophic to the region and overwhelm hospitals’ limited capacity to treat patients.

That’s why the sheriff overseeing the third largest jail system in the country is pushing for “bold action” to avert the potential fallout — he is seeking compassionate releases of hundreds of vulnerable people who pose a low risk to public safety. For that to happen, judges would need to sign off.

“Jails and prisons are fertile ground for the spread of infectious disease,” Gonzales said, noting that his staff has done “yeoman’s work to keep an outbreak at bay,” addressing hygiene and health concerns. “My nightmare scenario is that an outbreak happens at the county jail.”

But he said, “The standards we implement in the general community are either impossible to follow or hard to do in a jail setting. Our criminal justice system must become more aggressive in granting compassionate releases.”

And time is of the essence, he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is on board and considers taking steps to mitigate an outbreak at the jail “a very high priority,” noting “this could spread like wildfire at the jail.” County officials and judges are discussing the matter and consulting the fine print of statutes that govern such measures to try to assess how to make it happen.

Hidalgo also said she’s looking at ways to limit the population at the county’s juvenile lockup.

“Were trying to do as much as is feasible and can be done in a safe way to have these people not packed in so close together,” she said.

Alex Bunin, the chief public defender for the county, said the situation is dire: “If you are in jail and … and facing charges for a nonviolent crime, that shouldn’t be a death sentence because you’re going to get cornonavirus.”

He said county leaders can give the sheriff the authority to release people on misdemeanors. Felony decisions, under normal circumstances, must come from the judges.

There are easy ways to prioritize who might be released – older inmates, pregnant women, immuno-compromised inmates, and the like. Bear in mind that if the jail becomes a hot spot for coronavirus, then everyone who works at the jail, everyone who provides goods and services to the jail, and everyone they come into contact with including their families, are put at risk. Are we serious about trying to contain this pandemic, or is all that just lip service? The question answers itself if you let it.

Statewide restrictions on public gatherings

This was expected.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday took sweeping action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus across Texas, issuing an executive order that will close restaurants and schools, among other things.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.

The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.

[…]

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

Not much to add here. Cities and counties have been taking action along these lines, though there have been holdouts. (Harris County is considering further action as well.) That makes state action the appropriate solution, so good for Abbott though we can certainly debate what took so long. Be that as it may, here we are. The Chron has more.

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

We already have the power to do more voting by mail

KUT points to a path forward that could get a lot more people voting by mail in Texas.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

As the story notes, not a lot of people 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail no questions asked, take advantage of it now. Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir puts the figure at 10-15% there, and I’d bet it’s similar in Harris County. We could already have a lot more people voting by mail right now if they wanted to. The HCDP has a program where it sends a vote by mail application to all of its known-to-be-Democratic voters and then calls them to remind them to send it in (I’ve participated in that), and you can see the effect it has had in recent elections. Thanks to the high level of turnout in this year’s primary we have a lot more Dems identified, and we could get a lot more mail ballot applications sent out. It’s up to the voters themselves to take it from there.

I should note, since I pointed this out before, that having more people vote by mail will also mitigate the effect of not having a straight ticket voting option, in that it will not add to the lines at voting locations. That’s another pretty big consideration after this year’s primary, too. What I’m saying here is: If you’re a Dem and you’re 65 or will be by this November, please consider getting a mail ballot. Pester your eligible friends about it, too. Yes, I know, I love going to the polling places, and I’d greatly miss it if I didn’t do that. And Lord knows, we should very much be on the other end of the coronavirus curve by then – if not, we’re in much deeper trouble than we’re in now – but still. This is a thing you can do that would help on more than one level. Give it some thought.

Even more so, if you’re a person with health issues, especially if you’re in any way immuno-compromised, you can request a mail ballot as well. Your County Clerk ought to oblige. Again, we’ll very likely be mostly out of the pandemic woods by November, but again, why not take advantage anyway? It’ll be good for you, and good for the wait times at polling places. What’s not to like?

Now having said all that, there are potential drawbacks to expanding vote by mail, and we need to take them seriously. One, as Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, vote by mail applications can be rejected due to signature mismatches, and elections officials aren’t good at notifying applicants when this happens. That was noted in the earlier story about the possibility of an all-mail primary runoff election. You’ll need to be persistent and pester your county clerk if you don’t get your mail ballot in a timely fashion. Two, if you do go this route, please don’t then show up at a polling place and vote again in person. Every cycle some people get confused about this, and it is a thing you can be prosecuted for. Three, if the GOP suspects that Democratic voters are trying to game the system somehow by getting mail ballots to people who are not 65 but are claiming a health exception, they will surely take some kind of legal action to stop it. It’s hard to say how big a deal that could be, but we really don’t need further attacks on the legitimacy of our elections.

Finally, Campos raises a good point:

On the mail ballots for everyone thing, we need to be careful on this. I am all for going to a vote by mail system in the future. Last week, I watched a CNN piece on how the state of Washington handles their vote by mail system. It is pretty elaborate with a lot of special equipment and a physical layout to handle the volume. I don’t think the folks who conduct our elections in Texas have the infrastructure in place to handle 16 million mail ballots. I just don’t think we jump into this system under emergency circumstances. Convince me otherwise. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago today.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think we can encourage people who are already eligible to vote by mail to consider doing so if they haven’t already – there’s a clear benefit to that and the system should have no trouble handling it. Anything bigger than that will require planning and coordination, and we’re not there yet. We don’t want to risk having a worse outcome because we weren’t able to deliver on our promises.

On balance, there’s no reason why folks who are clearly eligible to get a mail ballot not to do so, and many reasons why they should. The first order of business is to make sure they know that they can, and then follow up from there. We can do that this year. It’s already in our power. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

Bars and clubs to be closed

Man, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be huge even if everything goes well.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday ordered all bars and clubs countywide to close for 15 days, the most drastic step local officials have taken to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order, which takes effect 8 a.m. Tuesday, also limits restaurants to takeout and delivery orders. The city and county leaders acknowledged the edict could force restaurateurs out of business and cost waitstaff, cooks and bartenders their jobs, but said that dreadful outcome is better than an outbreak in which local hospitals are overrun.

While Turner insisted the closures are not akin to a lockdown, Hidalgo urged residents to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people, effectively signaling a temporary end to public life for the county’s 4.7 million residents. She said the Houston area is at a pivotal moment in determining the path of the virus.

“The decisions we make, and you make, to go out in groups or to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die,” Hidalgo said. “Whether we flatten the curve sufficiently to allow our health care workers to address the influx of cases, or whether our health care system, and community at large, are overwhelmed.”

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office will enforce the temporary rules, Hidalgo said. Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said her inspectors will focus on ensuring bar and restaurants comply, and promised to issue citations for repeat offenders.

[…]

The bar closures and restaurant restrictions are “unquestionably going to cause a financial and health calamity for working people,” said Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

He said he agrees with the move because it is based on recommendations from health experts, but called on all levels of government to take “swift action” to help affected workers.

“In the bar and restaurant sector, we’re talking about low-wage workers, often uninsured, with little savings to weather the health and economic storm,” Khalil said. “And we need to make sure that they are provided for. They’re not responsible for the situation.”

After Dallas County announced similar restrictions Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association projected that up to 500,000 of the roughly 1.4 million employees in the Texas restaurant industry would lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to TRA chief revenue officer and spokeswoman Anna Tauzin.

There are some 300,000 restaurant employees in Harris County, though Tauzin said it was not clear how many could lose their job as a result of the restrictions. The job loss projections do not account for related industries, such as food suppliers and truckers, which Tauzin said also would be hit hard by the loss in restaurant demand.

The city’s press release is here. Bar and club owners are despondent, and I can’t blame them. There’s never a good time for this to happen, but for it to close down their places on Saint Patrick’s Day is an even bigger hit to their finances. I can’t even imagine what the scene is going to look like when this is over. The one thing you can do is still order takeout from your favorite restaurants, and buy gift certificates online from any place that sells them. It’s not going to be much, and everyone from the owners to the staff and the suppliers will need help from the federal government, but it’s something.

UPDATE: Austin has followed suit.

UPDATE: Galveston follows suit.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

Texas is not making any moves to delay the May 26 primary runoff as of now, even as other states have opted to postpone elections.
But election officials have had preliminary conversations about the potential of doing vote-by-mail ballots only for the runoffs, which would be a first in Texas history.
“It’s a possible solution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said Monday.

He said the idea has been kicked around and could work because of how low the turnout typically is for runoffs in Texas. As a former elections official, he said he has no doubt Texas counties could get ballots to voters who wanted to vote by mail rather than risk going to large polling sites.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, would not confirm that it is exploring that possibility, only saying a lot of options are on the table.

[…]

Other states have postponed primaries entirely. In Louisiana, election day has been moved from April 4 to June 20. In Georgia, the March 24 primary is now on May 19.

Absentee voting by mail is allowed in Texas for some people but isn’t very popular. In the March 4 primary, just 52,000 of 516,000 voters in Harris County cast ballots by mail.

In order to vote by mail in the May 26 runoff, voters must submit an application by May 15 to their county elections office.

See here for the background. It’s not clear to me how this could be accomplished without a special session of the Legislature, but perhaps Greg Abbott has the authority to order the SOS to come up with a plan for this based on the declared state of emergency. I’ll want to see an explanation of that, but even if it is a special session that is needed, that should be doable. The bigger question, as I discussed in my post, is whether everyone would have to apply for a mail ballot, or whether one would just be mailed to everyone who cast a primary vote. One can reasonably argue for either – I prefer the latter approach, as noted – and one can also point out that either approach has its share of logistical challenges. Which means that if we’re serious about this and not just dicking around, we need to get a proposal on the table and have at it.

One other issue to contend with:

Voting rights advocacy groups have been leery of Texas pushing vote-by-mail too far because its system makes it too easy for voters’ ballots to be thrown out if elections officials decide a signature on a returned ballot doesn’t look right.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has warned that the ballots are not reviewed by experts but instead by everyday eligible voters who just eyeball signatures for irregularities. Those decisions are final and give voters no chance to prove a ballot was properly signed. The group has pushed for Texas to allow voters a chance to contest ballots rejected for a signature match issue.

That’s a very legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed if this moves forward. Plenty of other states do a lot more voting by mail than Texas does, so I’m sure there are ways to handle this, it just needs to be an actual priority and not something left up to individual elections administrators. Again, if we are serious about this, we need to be talking details as soon as possible. We’ll see about that.

The Texas Democratic Party has called for all mail ballots for both the May primary runoffs and the regular May 2 election. I have no idea what is on the ballot on May 2 – as I said in the comments on my earlier post, there are no elections handled by the Harris County Clerk in May of even-numbered years. I’m fine with the concept, but it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The possibility of doing more vote by mail in November is also an entirely separate issue, one for which I’ve got a post in the works. For now, I think the primary runoffs are the main concern.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

The Houston healthcare community is preparing for COVID-19

I sure hope it’s enough.

With last week’s new certainty that the novel coronavirus is loose and being transmitted in Houston, the region’s medical providers are bracing for the current handful of known cases to blaze into an outbreak like nothing in modern memory.

“We had been saying, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,’” said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s now.”

By shutting down events and closing schools, officials aim to “flatten the curve” — to stop too many people from getting sick at the same time and overwhelming the region’s hospitals and medical providers.

Much about the highly contagious new virus remains unknown, and projections of its future behavior vary wildly.

Based on scenarios from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York Times estimated that anywhere from 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization, “potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, which has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds.”

For most people, the virus is expected to be mild. But up to 20 percent of cases — mostly people over 60 or with underlying medical conditions — may require hospitalization.

If everyone gets sick more or less at once, area hospitals almost certainly would not have enough rooms, critical care or ventilators. In Italy, where officials waited to control the outbreak, an extraordinary surge of cases has left the medical system on the verge of collapse.

Based on Harris County estimates, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said recently that if 30 percent of Harris County residents were to become sick at the same time and 20 percent of those people needed hospital care, medical infrastructure would be overloaded.

“We simply do not have enough hospital capacity to assume all of those people,” Hidalgo said. “We can’t afford to have a sudden spike in cases.”

Even the best case — a slowed outbreak that continues for months — is almost certain to pose significant challenges to the area’s hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices.

[…]

The virus poses particular threats to hospital personnel, who will be working long hours under stressful conditions — and facing coronavirus-related personal problems such as a lack of child care due to school closures. In the worst scenario, seen in China, medical personnel become ill themselves, and their colleagues have to take care of them.

Testifying before Congress earlier this month, Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine vaccine researcher and infectious disease specialist, urged that special attention be paid to hospital workers.

“If health care professionals are out of work because they’re sick, or if they’re being taken care of by other health care professionals in ICUs, that’s a disaster,” he said.

And just this weekend, two ER doctors, one in New Jersey and one in Kirkland, Washington, have tested positive for coronavirus. Even with the best preventative measures, this thing is going to spread. All we can do – all that we must do – is take every action we can to try to limit how quickly it spreads. That’s our best hope.

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

The Andrea Duhon situation

On Election Night, I wrote about the HCDE Postion 7 At Large primary result, in which Andrea Duhon, who is already serving on the Board in a different position, to which she was appointed following the resignation of Josh Flynn, won the race outright. I had suggested this was a disaster for the Dems, because Duhon would have to withdraw from the race, which would leave the Dems without a candidate in November. Here’s the relevant state law on that:

Sec. 145.035. WITHDRAWN, DECEASED, OR INELIGIBLE CANDIDATE’S NAME OMITTED FROM BALLOT. A candidate’s name shall be omitted from the ballot if the candidate withdraws, dies, or is declared ineligible on or before the 74th day before election day.

Sec. 145.036. FILLING VACANCY IN NOMINATION. (a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), if a candidate’s name is to be omitted from the ballot under Section 145.035, the political party’s state, district, county, or precinct executive committee, as appropriate for the particular office, may nominate a replacement candidate to fill the vacancy in the nomination.

(b) An executive committee may make a replacement nomination following a withdrawal only if:

(1) the candidate:

(A) withdraws because of a catastrophic illness that was diagnosed after the first day after the date of the regular filing deadline for the general primary election and the illness would permanently and continuously incapacitate the candidate and prevent the candidate from performing the duties of the office sought; and

(B) files with the withdrawal request a certificate describing the illness and signed by at least two licensed physicians;

(2) no political party that held primary elections has a nominee for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate as of the time of the withdrawal; or

(3) the candidate has been elected or appointed to fill a vacancy in another elective office or has become the nominee for another office.

So despite some speculation I’ve seen around, the Dems would not be able to pick a substitute candidate if Duhon withdrew. This is basically the Tom DeLay situation from 2006. If Duhon withdraws, that’s it.

However, she doesn’t have to withdraw. It was my assumption that that was the only option, and that isn’t correct. There is another alternative, which I hadn’t considered until Duhon suggested it to me the day after the election: She could run for Position 7 while remaining in Position 4, then resign from Position 4 if she wins. The Board would then appoint her replacement as they had appointed Flynn’s. My assumption had been that she would have to step down to run for the other HCDE position, but if that were true she’d have not been appointed to it in the first place, since she was already a candidate at that time. This makes sense, and I should have thought of it before. I still maintain that the less-messy outcome was for Duhon to finish below fifty percent and then withdraw from the runoff, but that ship has sailed. So, Plan B it is, and we’ll work to find another qualified candidate to appoint if Duhon wins in November.

Thus endeth this year’s Rodeo

Surely not a surprise.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will close due to concerns about coronavirus after a Montgomery County man with no recent travel history tested positive for COVID-19.

The case is the first example of community spread in the Houston region and was directly responsible for the decision to cancel the Rodeo, Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference early Wednesday afternoon. Officials also announced that the man likely attended a barbecue cookoff for the Rodeo late last month, though it was unclear if he had symptoms at the time.

Turner said he will sign an emergency health declaration Wednesday that will remain in place for seven days, at which point City Council will decide whether to extend it. Under the declaration, all events produced or permitted by the city will be canceled through the end of March, Turner said. That includes Sunday’s Tour de Houston fundraising bike ride, which officials will attempt to reschedule, according to the mayor.

Rodeo officials said they were “deeply saddened” but agreed with the city’s move to cancel the livestock show and rodeo.

“As hard as this is to do, it is the right thing to do,” said Joel Crowley, president and chief executive of the Rodeo.

It’s a tough choice to have to make, and there’s a real cost to doing it.

The Houston rodeo generated $227 million in total economic impact last year, directly supporting nearly 3,700 jobs in 2019, according to a study by Economic Analytics Consulting commissioned by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year. The study measured new spending in the Houston region generated by outside visitors and spending by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Inc.

[…]

The cancellation of CERAWeek, which was expected to bring 5,500 attendees from some 80 countries downtown, cost businesses an estimated $7 million in lost hotel, dining, rental and other direct spending, according to Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The rodeo’s cancellation is expected to be more costly for the local economy. It’s known as as the world’s largest entertainment livestock exhibition, and it’s one of Houston’s largest tourist events of the year, lasting for nearly the entire month of March and requiring the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers.

Last year, the event attracted 273,000 out of town attendees during that time.

Economic projections like this, especially when sourced to the event in question, are unreliable. I don’t think anyone would doubt that the city, and especially the people who work at these events, will suffer for not having them. Still, this was the right thing to do, and will be less costly by any measure than continuing on with business as usual. Let us hope that the need for such drastic action will be short term and not longer. The city of Houston’s press release, which declared a public health emergency along with Harris County, is here. Texas Monthly and the Trib have more.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Look out! Here come the lady judges!

Everybody scream!

In Democratic judicial primaries last Tuesday, Dayna beat David, Jane trounced Jim, and Colleen got more support than John, David and Brennen combined. Is that all there was to it?

Men have dominated Texas courts for decades. Now, in Democratic-controlled areas of the state, they seem headed for extinction.

The corrective for years of gender inequity on the bench has proven rather simple: voters.

Women have disappeared from the high-octane Democratic presidential primary. But in down-ballot, low-information races, Texas Democrats are increasingly, consistently backing women over men. In last week’s Democratic primary, women won more votes than men in all of the roughly 30 gender-split contests for high court, court of appeals and district court, according to results from the Texas Secretary of State. Rarely was it even close.

In urban areas, Democrats typically beat Republicans in the general election. So if Democratic men can’t beat Democratic women in judicial primaries, the bench in Texas cities is likely to become a lot more female. Democratic men won primary races for high court, courts of appeals or district courts only when they were uncontested or facing a male opponent.

Some voters may have chosen women candidates because of their superior qualifications or experience. But experts say it’s likely that many of them just looked at two unfamiliar names and chose the one that sounded like a woman.

“Maybe they knew nothing, maybe they knew that they were both equal, but all things being equal, they went with the woman,” said Elsa Alcala, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “People are voting based on some characteristic that’s apparent from the ballot as compared to knowing who these people really are.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. This issue was important enough that the Chron and Texas Lawyer also devoted feature stories to it.

Look, I get it, judicial elections can be quite random, most people don’t know much about the candidates they’re voting for, yadda yadda yadda. There really were multiple good judges ousted, and that is a shame. It also is what it is, and as I’ve said before, the same mercurial partisan election system that unceremoniously dumped these good judges also elected them in the first place. This is my reminder that while there have been calls since at least 2008 (the first year since the early 90s that Democrats started winning judicial elections in Harris County, mind you) for some kind of different selection process for judges, no one has yet come up with an actual concrete proposal. There is now a blue-ribbon Judicial Selection Commission that is tasked with proposing such a method; I see no reason to trust it and recommend you do the same. I could be wrong, they could come up with something that minimizes cronyism while rewarding merit and promoting diversity, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

By the way, there were seven male Democratic judges who did not draw a primary opponent this cycle: Kyle Carter, RK Sandill, Michael Gomez, Mike Engelhart, Robert Schaffer, Robert Johnson, and Darrell Jordan. If Democrats maintain their recent dominance in Harris County, then we will see those seven men along with 20 women elected to district and county court benches this year. Back in 2004, the last time in a Presidential year that Republicans swept the judicial races, there were also 27 such elections. That year, 20 men and seven women were elected. I admit my memory isn’t what it once was, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t multiple articles written about how hard it was to get elected judge as a woman in Harris County back then.

My point is, let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. There were still 30 male judges elected in 2018, out of 59 total, 29 of whom are still on the bench (Bill McLeod of accidental resignation fame was the 30th). If after the 2024 election there are zero men on the district or county court benches in Harris County, then maybe there’s a problem. And I’m sure in another hundred years or so, society will evolve to the point where it can be remedied. History shows that you can’t rush these things, after all.

(And yes, the irony of these stories running within days of Elizabeth Warren suspending her Presidential campaign is…something.)

Meet your bail reform overseers

They’re where the buck will stop.

A federal judge Tuesday approved the choice of a Duke University law professor to oversee Harris County’s historic bail reform agreement that governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Brandon L. Garrett, from Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, to serve as monitor for implementation of the seven-year consent decree. The judge also approved Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York prosecutor who teaches at University of Houston Law Center, as deputy monitor for the settlement.

[…]

Garrett has a background in criminal justice, policy-making and reform, according to a biography on Duke’s website. His research and teaching has focused on criminal justice outcomes, evidence and constitutional rights. He has also studied DNA exoneration, eyewitness identification and corporate crime.

Guerra Thompson, a native of Laredo, is an award-winning professor who directs the university’s Criminal Justice Institute for the UH law program, according to the UH website. Her scholarly work includes articles on wrongful convictions, eyewitness identification, forensic science, civil asset forfeiture, federal sentencing, discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial ethics, police interrogations and immigration-related crimes.

She has played a key role in the transition to office for Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016 and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2017. She was a founding board member for the Houston Forensic Science Center and was tapped in 2009 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

Sounds like two good people for the job. It’s not totally clear to me what exactly their responsibilities will be, but I assume if things are not going the way they should, we’ll hear about it from them.

Please fill out the Census

I mean, come on. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know damn well it’s your civic duty.

Texas loses more than $2,300 per year for every person who doesn’t get counted in the U.S. Census, according to a recent study by George Washington University.

With stakes in the billions for the once-in-a-decade event, Houston and Harris County officials Monday announced a vigorous joint effort to get an accurate headcount of every person in the region. The “Yes! To Census 2020” campaign, fueled by $4 million in county funds and $2 million from the city, includes outreach through community groups, key influencers and public art along with real-time data collection on responses from historically undercounted communities so that outreach workers can be deployed strategically.

Census forms will be mailed on March 12 and participants may respond online for the first time, or complete the form in writing or by phone, with assistance available in multiple languages. For those who don’t respond, the Census will send out enumerators later this year to attempt door-to-door data collection in some portions of the country, but many people will be missed, Census officials say.

[…]

Texas’ biggest counties and cities, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, are shouldering that burden on their own, officials said during a launch event at the Children’s Museum Monday.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that folks participate, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. She called Census 2020 a crucial moment “to live up to that right that we have…to be counted.”

Amid heightened tensions for immigrants under the Trump administration, Hidalgo made an impassioned plea, in the Spanish version of her remarks, to prospective participants to set aside any fears about filling out the form.

“The Census is very safe, I want to make that very clear, that under penalty of prison or fine, nobody can share your personal information from the Census — not ICE, the FBI, no organization or federal agency can access your personal information about the Census,” she said in Spanish.

As we know, the state shirked its responsibility and left the heavy lifting to the cities and counties, who will definitely feel the brunt of any undercount. It’s not just the big urban and suburban areas that are scrambling to do the work that the state refused to do – plenty of rural counties are doing their best, too. So please make it a little easier on them and fill out your damn form when you get it. It’s the least you can do.

Trautman apologizes for the long lines

A very good start.

Diane Trautman

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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


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

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

Coronavirus comes to town

It was just a matter of time.

After months of fear, preparations and cancellations, the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has officially come to the Houston area.

One day after a Fort Bend man in his 70s was “presumptively confirmed” to have the deadly disease, officials confirmed two more cases, this time in Harris County. Although 11 coronavirus cases had been transferred from foreign countries to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the Fort Bend case was the first in Texas not to be imported to the state.

As of March 5, the disease, which resembles pneumonia and originated in China in late December, has infected more than 90,000 people, killed 3,000+ in 65 countries and seen more than 150 patients be treated for the disease in 16 U.S. states, 11 of whom have died.

The Chron has a coronavirus landing page with all their coverage of the pandemic, so check that out. In the meantime, don’t panic, stick to reliable information sources, and for crying out loud wash ur hands. Oh, and don’t use vodka as a hand sanitizer except in a dire emergency.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner’s statement is here, and the City of Houston Health Department’s statement is here.

We need to talk about those lines

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

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 primary results: State races

I’m going to direct you to the Texas Tribune results page, which combines both parties’ results and is a couple orders of magnitude less sucky than the revamped SOS election night results pages. Good Lord, whoever designed that “upgrade” from the lower-tech previous version should be banished to a desert island. We’re gonna do bullet points here:

– As with the Harris County judicial races, female candidates swept the statewide judicial nominations. Brandon Birmingham, who was unopposed for CCA Place 9, will be the lone Democratic dude on the statewide judicial ballot. Staci Williams was leading Brandy Voss for Supreme Court Place 7. On the Republican side, incumbent CCA Place 3 incumbent Bert Richardson was holding on against Rick Perry fangirl Gina Parker. Good grief.

– Chrysta Castaneda and former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo were headed to a runoff for Railroad Commissioner. On the Republican side, incumbent Ryan Sitton was trailing his opponent, some dude named Jim Wright. I was paying no attention to that one, so I’ll be looking for some news stories today to explain what happened there.

– Michelle Palmer and Kimberley McLeod were headed to a runoff in SBOE 6, while Marsha Burnett-Webster was cruising in SBOE 10. Rebecca Bell-Metereau was on her way to another shot at SBOE5, and, well, lookie here:

Robert Morrow is leading in the Republican primary races for the State Board of Education District 5 seat, which represents an area spanning Austin to San Antonio, according to some voting returns Tuesday night.

With about 86,000 votes counted, Morrow, a provocateur who often posts photos of women’s breasts on social media, had 39% of votes, followed by Lani Popp, a speech pathologist at the Northside school district in San Antonio, who had 36% of votes. Inga Cotton, executive director of San Antonio Charter Moms, a nonprofit that provides resources to families about charter schools, has 25% of votes. If nobody wins more than 50% of votes, the two highest vote recipients will head to a run-off election May 26.

Chairman of the Travis County GOP Matt Mackowiak was already signaling his dismay at Morrow’s lead Tuesday night.

You may recall that Morrow was for a brief time the Chair of the Travis County GOP. Have fun dealing with that shit sandwich, Matt.

– Sen. Eddie Lucio was on the knife’s edge to win in SD27. He was just over 50% when last I looked. Sara Stapleton-Barrera was in second, with about 34%. This still could go to a runoff, we’ll see. In SD19, the main pickup opportunity for Dems, Xochil Pena Rodriguez led Roland Gutierrez and would face him in the runoff. Sen. Borris Miles was around 60% of the vote in his race.

– For the State House, Natali Hurtado (HD126) and Ann Johnson (HD134) won easily. Akilah Bacy was headed to a runoff with Jenifer Pool in HD138, and Anna Eastman will have to run one more race, this time against Penny Shaw, in HD148. As of this writing, Rep. Harold Dutton was at 50.03% in his race, eight votes above the line to avoid a runoff. Needless to say, that can change. All other incumbents, in Harris and elsewhere, were headed to victory, though on the GOP side Reps. Dan Flynn and JD Sheffield were facing runoffs. Suleman Lalani and Sarah DeMerchant were leading in HD26.

Like I said, a few things are still in flux, but this is where we are with about two-thirds of the Harris County vote in. I’ll do updates as needed and will have more tomorrow.

UPDATE: In the end, both Sen. Eddie Lucio and Rep. Harold Dutton fell short of fifty percent and will be in runoffs in May.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Six questions for today’s voting

In some semblance of an order…

1. How will the early vote differ from the Tuesday vote? I’m mostly talking about the Presidential race here. We strongly suspect today will be a very big day at the ballot box, in part because people have been waiting, to see what the latest developments have been, before deciding, You know, so they don’t accidentally vote for a candidate who has dropped out, or one who seems unlikely to get any delegates. Bernie has the poll surge, Biden has the South Carolina surge, which has earned him a number of late endorsements. Which will have the greater effect?

2. Who finishes second in the Senate primary? Every single poll has MJ Hegar in the lead, sometimes by a few points, sometimes by a significant margin, with every other candidate in a pack after her. None of the other candidates has raised much money, and in each of the recent polls at least one of the no-money-at-all candidates has been up in the high single digits, ahead of at least one candidate who has an actual campaign. If I had to guess I’d say Royce West and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez have the edge for the second runoff slot, but in a race with 12 candidates and where fifteen percent might be enough to finish second, who knows?

3. What surprises are out there? Here I’m mostly thinking of the Congressional primaries for the DCCC-targeted seats where there’s one candidate with a lot more money than the others: CD02, CD21, CD22, CD23, and CD24. Do the candidates with the most money win, or at least lead the pack, or does that matter less in a year where turnout is super high and voters may not know as much about the non-Presidential candidates?

4. Do we have to have the “insurgents versus establishment” debate again? There are a few races where that’s on the menu, at least in a high profile way. I’ll check back on that sometime after tomorrow, I don’t feel like it right now.

5. How random is the bottom of the ballot? We have a lot of judicial races in Harris County, and in the primaries where you don’t have a party label to give you some guidance, we have a lot of voters who know diddly squat about a lot of these candidates. Here in Harris County, we have a number of challengers to sitting District Court judges, some of whom are more serious than others (the same can be said about the incumbents). Some candidates have racked up the endorsements and have been very visible, others not so much. Will there be any correlation between those who worked at is and those who won? History says at best a weak link, but maybe this year will be different.

6. Will the Republicans succeed at their diversity effort? They’d sure like to say they were successful. Maybe that’s good enough.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.