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Harris County

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Harris County GOP drops its lawsuit over election night vote dropoffs

It wasn’t getting anywhere, anyway.

The Harris County GOP on Friday dropped its lawsuit, filed on the day of last month’s primary runoff election, challenging the county’s plan for counting ballots.

Local Republican party officials argued the county’s ballot transport protocol violated state election law. The lawsuit, filed just hours before polls closed on Election Day, could have caused serious delays in counting ballots on May 24 had the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Harris County GOP that the plan was unlawful. Instead, the court did not issue an opinion and election night ballot counting proceeded uneventfully at NRG Arena.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office debuted the plan in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s central counting station.

Traditionally, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station on election night has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process.

The Harris County GOP pushed back on the county’s plan, arguing only election judges are allowed to transport ballots and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots themselves. The Election Administrator’s office notified Republican election judges they could “opt in” to the county’s plan if they wished, and at least 31 of them did so.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria argued the county’s ballot delivery plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

Keith Ingram, the secretary of state’s director of elections, told lawmakers in the hearing he disagreed with that interpretation and believed Harris County’s plan violated the law.

See here for the background. As noted recently, the Supreme Court never responded to the initial writ, so I assume this was just a matter of the local GOP deciding it wasn’t worth the effort to continue. With a new election administrator about to come on board, we can revisit the matter and see if there’s a consensus to be had. From what I’ve gathered from talking to people, the multiple-dropoff-locations idea, which had been Diane Trautman’s original plan, is probably the best way to go. But we’ll see what happens.

We have finalists for the Election Administrator job

Good.

The director of voting for Harris County will become the interim elections administrator, officials said Wednesday as the county elections commission narrowed its search for the permanent job to two candidates.

Following a closed-door executive session of the Harris County Elections Commission, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience. The commission will schedule another meeting to make its choice to replace Isabel Longoria, the outgoing elections administrator whose resignation takes effect July 1.

[…]

In the meantime, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim elections administrator until the new hire begins, which Hidalgo said is likely to be on Aug. 1.

That will give Longoria’s replacement less than three months to prepare for his or her first test: early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24. The fall ballot will include several high-profile state and local races, including those for governor, attorney general and Harris County judge.

See here for the previous update. It would have been nice for this person to have a longer runway, or a lower-profile election in which to get themselves acclimated, but this is the hand we’re playing. I certainly hope that whoever these folks are, they have a lot of experience doing this job. They’re going to need to change the narrative about how elections are run in Harris County, sort out the best way to collect and transport election night returns (at last report, the Supreme Court has still not issued any ruling on that writ of mandamus the local Republicans filed), and probably deal with a slavering horde of Republican poll-watchers in November. Godspeed and keep a stiff upper lip, whoever you are.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

Harris County leaders will begin discussions Tuesday about whether to add a bond election to the November ballot.

The bond would be a hybrid measure to raise money for roads, parks, flood control, and public safety. It’s unclear how much the bond would be for, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office said it could come in the ballpark of $1 billion.

Garcia, who asked the county budget office to look into the possibility of a new bond, said Commissioners Court will first have to hear from the office on whether the county’s finances can sustain new borrowing.

Garcia, a Democrat, is up for reelection this fall.

“I’m in favor of putting it on the same ballot that I would be on,” he said. “I think it’s important to show the folks that we’re working on their behalf, we’re making investments, and we need their support to make the investments that they want to see done.”

[…]

Garcia’s office says the commissioner is flexible on the bond amount, as he’s hoping to win bipartisan support from his fellow commissioners to put it on the ballot.

There was the post-Harvey $2.5 billion flood bond election in 2018, a bond package in 2015 that passed easily, and the 2013 joint inmate processing center referendum that just barely passed (the “save the Astrodome” item on the same ballot went down). That was a sort-of sequel to a series of bond issues in 2007 that included one for jail construction, which was defeated. So yeah, there’s room for a new issue. Obviously, what would be in it needs to be defined, and it would need to be approved by Commissioners Court for the ballot by mid-August or so. We’ll see what they come up with. The Chron has more.

There was definitely an improvement in mail ballot acceptance for the primary runoffs

The last time I looked, I was largely unable to find any news stories about mail ballots and their rejection rates for the May primary runoff elections, with the exception of one story about Bexar County and how they were leading the field in getting rejection rates down to something akin to pre-SB1 levels. I still can’t find any stories about this, but it (finally) occurred to me that the new reconciliation reports that election officials now have to publish would contain the data I’m looking for. So with that in mind, off I went. I obviously don’t have the time to go looking everywhere, and some of those smaller county elections webpages are just awful, but I did have a look at a few places of interest.

Harris County, Democratic: 19,081 total mail ballots, of which 1,128 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 5.9%.

Harris County, Republican: 15,053 total mail ballots, of which 1,169 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 7.8%

That’s a clear improvement of the 20% rejection rate from March and the 12% rejection rate of the May special election. It’s still too high, but it’s not take-your-breath-away too high. And it pleases me no end to see Republicans have a harder time with it than Democrats. It’s unlikely to be enough to matter if that’s still the case in November, but it would be a rich piece of karma if more of their votes got tossed as a result of this malicious law.

Bexar County, Democratic: 11,919 total mail ballots, of which 15 (yes, fifteen) were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.1%.

Bexar County, Republican: 5,856 total mail ballots, of which 33 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Bexar is definitely the gold standard, the example for everyone else to emulate. And Dems did better here as well. Encouraging.

Travis County, cumulative: 10,224 total mail ballots, of which 222 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 2.2%.

Not all counties broke this out by party. The overall rate is low enough here to not sweat it too much. About 75% of the mail ballots overall were Democratic, so it’s likely that the Dem rejection rate was right around 2.2% – the Republican rate could have been a lot different without affecting the total too much.

Dallas County, cumulative: 10,708 total mail ballots, of which 176 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 1.6%.

Like Travis County, but slightly fewer rejections. Dems cast a bit less than 70% of the mail ballots.

Montgomery County, cumulative: 4,366 total mail ballots, of which 25 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Republicans knew what they were doing here. They were 70% of mail ballots.

Fort Bend County, cumulative: 4,382 total mail ballots, of which 187 were rejected, for a 4.3% rejection rate.

Closest one yet to Harris. About two thirds of mail ballots were Democratic. Would have been nice to see the breakdown by party here.

Cameron County, Democratic: 1,323 total mail ballots, of which 3 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.3%.

Cameron County, Republican: 292 total mail ballots, of which 2 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.7%.

Wow.

So it’s clear there was a lot of improvement, and while Harris did a much better job there’s room for us to do better as well. It’s also important to remember that there are still a huge number of people who have not yet tried to vote by mail, so there’s no guarantee that the improvements will continue or be maintained. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least it looks like that work will have a payoff.

(PS – Not all counties had the reconciliation reports in a place that I could find. I looked for them for El Paso and Tarrant and came up empty. Might have just been me, but maybe their site design needs some work.)

SCOTx answers the Fifth Circuit’s questions

Some late-breaking SB1 lawsuit news.

The Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday on the term “solicit” as it pertains to the state’s new election code.

[…]

Of three main issues, one raised several questions pertaining to the definition of “solicit.” The questions arose after the plaintiff, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, argued the vagueness of the term. In one argument, Longoria’s attorneys requested that the term “solicit” be tethered only to vote-by-mail applications sent to those ineligible voters.

State justices rejected that request.

“The statute does not prohibit solicitation merely of those ineligible to vote by mail. Its text leaves no doubt that the prohibition extends more broadly to the larger universe of persons who ‘did not request an application,’” the opinion read.

In a second request, Longoria’s team argued that “solicitation” in its broad definition could include terms that are less forceful in nature, including “encourage” or “request.

The defendant, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s team, said it defined “solicit” as beyond encouragement, but more so “importuning or strongly urging.” Paxton said that stating “please fill out this application to vote by mail” would constitute solicitation.

While justices refrained from defining “solicit,” stating they were not requested to, they agreed with Paxton that “solicit” is not limited to demands that a person submit an application to vote by mail, but includes statements such as “please fill out this application to vote by mail.”

But justices did find that telling potential voters they have the opportunity to apply for mail-in ballots does not constitute solicitation.

“The Legislature intended to distinguish between merely informing Texans of the option to vote by mail and soliciting them to submit an application to vote by mail when they have not requested one,” the opinion read. “Without expressing an opinion as to any particular statement plaintiffs may wish to make, we conclude that (the law) does not include broad statements such as telling potential voters that they have the opportunity to apply for mail-in ballots.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the opinion. As noted in the previous update, by this time both sides had agreed that Volunteer Deputy Registrars (VDRs) were not public officials and (I presume) not covered by SB1, and that the Attorney General did not have enforcement power for SB1 (not clear to me if District Attorneys might, however). I expect this means that the Fifth Circuit will rule that plaintiff Cathy Morgan, who is a VDR, has no standing to sue.

On the three-part question that SCOTx did have to answer, my reading is that under SB1 it would be illegal for a county elections administrator to pre-emptively send a vote by mail application to everyone who is eligible to vote by mail, as Chris Hollins did in 2020. Such applications can only be sent to people who ask for them. Providing general information about the vote by mail process, including how to apply, would not be barred. I still think the whole thing is a ridiculous over-reaction to what Hollins did in 2020, and that we should be making it easier to vote by mail in general, but all things considered, compared to where we were before SB1, this isn’t a major setback.

It should be noted that there’s still a lot of room for future disputes here, which likely will remain the case even after a final ruling in this lawsuit. From the opinion, on the matter of the definition of the word “solicit”:

The Fifth Circuit next asks whether “solicits” is “limited to demanding submission of an application for mail-in ballots (whether or not the applicant qualifies).” 2022 WL 832239, at *6. Plaintiffs suggest that the ordinary meaning of “solicit” includes speech that lacks the insistence normally associated with a demand. According to Plaintiffs, the term’s ordinary meaning includes speech that is far less forceful. Indeed, under their view, solicitation includes all the following: “requesting, urging, encouraging, seeking, imploring, or inducing.”

Paxton argues that the Legislature could not have intended to sweep so broadly. He argues, for example, that “solicits” cannot include mere encouragement of an action because the Legislature has used both “solicits” and “encourages” in many statutes, indicating that they have different meanings. See, e.g., TEX. EDUC. CODE § 37.152(a) (“A person commits an offense if the person . . . solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid another in engaging in hazing . . . .”); TEX. PENAL CODE § 7.02(a)(2) (holding a person criminally responsible for another’s offense if the person “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense”); cf. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 13.031(a) (stating that the purpose of appointing VDRs is “[t]o encourage voter registration”). Paxton urges us to define “solicits” to exclude mere encouragement and to require “importuning or strongly urging.” But Paxton also concedes that stating “please fill out this application to vote by mail” would constitute solicitation.

Whether a particular statement constitutes solicitation for purposes of Section 276.016(a)(1) will, of course, be informed by the precise words spoken and by surrounding context. We therefore do not endeavor to articulate today a comprehensive definition of “solicits” as the term is used in Section 276.016(a)(1). Nor do we express an opinion as to whether any of the general categories of statements Plaintiffs say they wish to make constitutes solicitation. We will leave for another case, with a more developed record, the task of defining the term’s outer reach. For today, we believe it is sufficient to hold that, for purposes of Section 276.016(a)(1), “solicits” is not limited to demands that a person submit an application to vote by mail. As Paxton acknowledges, “solicits” includes statements that fall short of a demand, such as “please fill out this application to vote by mail.”

So Isabel Longoria is arguing that SB1 is super-restrictive on this point, while Ken Paxton is saying, nah, not really. The Court is saying they don’t want to get involved just yet, better to see what happens in the real world rather than rule on hypotheticals, and work with a more complete set of facts. If the parties’ arguments seem backwards to you, the Court addressed that in a footnote:

In a criminal prosecution (or civil-enforcement action), one ordinarily might expect the government to take a broad view of the statute’s application and the defendant to take a narrow view. But to establish (or defeat) a plaintiff’s standing in a pre-enforcement challenge, the plaintiff has an incentive to argue that the statute does apply to her, while the government has an incentive to argue it does not. The unusual dynamic present here contributes to our reluctance to make wide-ranging proclamations on the issues of state law presented.

In other words, at this point in time before the law has really been applied to anyone, the plaintiffs want the Court to believe that the law is vast and (they claim) over-reaching and must be struck down, while the defense wants the Court to think that the law is more modest and thus not a threat to anyone’s Constitutional liberties. Needless to say, when the law is eventually enforced by someone, those arguments will be reversed.

So it’s now back to the Fifth Circuit. I wish there had been more coverage of this – I grant, the opinion dropped on Friday afternoon and some people have lives – but so far all I’ve seen is this story from a site in Greenville (?) and one from a partisan site; I also found paywalled stories at Law.com and Bloomberg Law, but couldn’t read them. Maybe next week one of the regulars will have something, which I hope will include a bit of analysis from someone with actual law knowledge. Until then, this is what I think I know.

Long lost daughter of Tina Linn and Dean Clouse found

Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

Donna Casasanta got the call this week, a call she’s spent half of her life praying for.

A call about Holly Marie.

More than 40 years ago, her son, Harold Dean Clouse, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla., with his wife, Tina Linn, and their young daughter. Then, all three abruptly vanished.

Finally, in October 2021, genealogists called Casasanta and her relatives with painful news: Police had discovered the couple’s bodies, back in 1981, in a copse of trees in east Harris County, but only had recently identified them using modern technology.

Dean was beaten to death. Tina had been strangled.

There was no sign of their baby, Holly Marie.

This week that changed. Holly Marie is alive and well and living in Oklahoma, after a family adopted her as a baby.

Investigators from the Texas Attorney General’s office walked into Holly’s workplace on Tuesday and told her who she was.

Hours later, Holly and her grandmother and aunts and uncles met, in a raucous Zoom call.

It was June 7, the day that her father would have turned 63.

“Finding Holly is a birthday present from heaven since we found her on Junior’s birthday,” Casasanta said, in a statement released by a family spokeswoman. “I prayed for more than 40 years for answers and the Lord has revealed some of it.”

See here and here for the background. This whole story richly deserves a prestige true-crime miniseries on HBO, and there are still some huge questions that may never be answered. Read the rest, and read the previous stories of how Linn and Clouse were identified if you haven’t yet. The Observer has more.

When we had more deaths than births in Texas

Seems like that would be a bad thing.

In the midst of the nation’s deadliest pandemic, Texas recorded more births than deaths every month since 2016 — with one exception.

Provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that January 2021 was the only month when, statewide, the number of deaths was greater than the number of births.

Nine months before in April 2020, the world was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths from COVID-19 peaked in Texas, according to The New York Times, and vaccines had just become available to select groups of individuals.

Twenty counties — including Bexar County — recorded more births than deaths every month until the pandemic, when they began having months with more deaths than births.

The number of births for a county is determined by the mother’s residence.

Thirty one counties — including more populous ones like Harris, Dallas and Travis — always recorded more births than deaths, even during the pandemic.

Five counties — Bowie, Kerr, Potter, Smith, and Wichita — reported more deaths than births for all 22 months of pandemic data available.

There are charts and maps in the story, and they calculate the birth and death rates on a per 100K people basis to make everything more easily comparable. One thing the story doesn’t go into, which is a thing that has been widely reported on elsewhere, is differences in voting patterns across the counties. I’m not going to dive into all of the data here, but I will note this much about those five counties that had a net loss (not counting migrations) for each month:

Bowie – Trump 70.9%
Kerr – Trump 75.3%
Potter – Trump 68.5%
Smith – Trump 69.0%
Wichita – Trump 69.7%

You get the picture.

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

Now I know the difference between those two Army Corps of Engineers lawsuits

Some good timing for me here.

A federal appellate court on Thursday reversed an earlier decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not to blame for flooding homes downstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs after Hurricane Harvey.

The ruling brought new hope for thousands of people after U.S. Judge Loren A. Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims passionately dismissed their lawsuits in 2020.

“These were flood waters that no entity could entirely control,” he wrote at the time.

The case will return to the lower court, according a news release from the McGehee, Chang, Landgraf, Feiler law firm, which represents the plaintiffs.

The lower court will again consider if the Corps is liable for the flooding that occurred after the Corps opened the gates on the dams, sending water pouring down Buffalo Bayou.

So yesterday’s post was about developments in the upstream lawsuit, in which as we know the Army Corps of Engineers was found liable. I must have not seen the 2020 story about the dismissal of the downstream lawsuit. It’ll be interesting to see what the judge makes of it now. Hopefully the next time there’s news about it I will catch it.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

What does the Army Corps of Engineers owe reservoir flooding victims?

We’ll soon find out.

Christina Micu sat on the witness stand and tearfully explained how she’d made a list of everything she lost when Hurricane Harvey flooded her four-bedroom home. Her son’s toys. Her kitchen stove. A rocking chair her mom had given her.

She threw it all away — and wants to be paid back for it.

“A lot of things were taken from me when we were flooded,” Micu said. “A lot of them are irreplaceable. I’ll never have them back, from heirloom items to baby pictures.”

Micu gave her testimony in Houston Tuesday as the long-awaited trial kicked off before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to determine what the government owes her and her neighbors for flooding their homes.

Senior Judge Charles F. Lettow, who is presiding at this week’s hearing, found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable following a previous proceeding three years ago. The Corps held water behind two dams west of town to lessen flooding in central Houston when days of rain drenched the region in 2017. The vast majority of residents behind these massive earthen dams did not know they lived in the reservoirs.

After delays caused by the pandemic, the judge will consider what is owed to Harvey victims by examining a handful of individual flooding cases as examples. The outcomes will set criteria for what happens for thousands of others.

“Plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the government in order to save downtown Houston,” said attorney Daniel Charest, as photos of the flooding flashed on computer screens. “They only want to be made whole.”

This was the residents’ only chance to be paid back for their lost private property rights, Charest argued. And not only had they lost property, the value of the homes would drop as a result of the flooding the government inflicted, he said.

Representing the U.S. government, attorney Laura Duncan said the neighborhoods where homes flooded are still desirable. The real estate market wasn’t impacted, she argued.

There were two lawsuits filed over this. In 2019, the judge ruled that the Army Corps was liable – it’s not clear to me whether this is the outcome of one of those suits or if they were combined – and we are now at the damages portion of the trial. I don’t know what to expect at this point, but it seems likely to me that the homeowners will get something. It’s a question of how much.

UPDATE: This Chron story from Thursday afternoon, in a fortuitous bit of timing, answers my question about which lawsuit this is about. Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

A better mail ballot

I’m glad someone’s working on this.

After thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected in Texas’ statewide primaries in March, election officials and voting rights groups are stepping up efforts to make sure voters don’t run into the same problems with ballot rejections going forward.

Nearly 25,000 mail ballots were rejected for the March 1 primaries — a far higher rate than prior elections.

Some ballots were rejected because identifying data didn’t match what was on file. But election officials and voting groups say a design issue with the envelope that Texas voters use to return their mail ballots was most responsible for the rejections.

Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says voters missed important instructions located right under the flap of the mail ballot return envelope. That is where voters have to provide either a partial Social Security number or their driver’s license number.

“Voters wouldn’t see [the section] if the flap is down,” she says. “It’s only visible if the flap is up. And the reason behind that was to keep it secret so people couldn’t get that [information] when it was going through the mail.”

Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications with the Texas secretary of state’s office, says election officials are also convinced that the new voter ID field on the envelope is what led to mass rejections.

“Based on the number of people who just missed it completely, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to think that some people thought it was just an optional section,” Taylor says.

A lot of these changes were prompted by a voting law Republican state leaders enacted last year. Taylor says that among the changes, more information was required to be on the return envelope. That affected the envelope’s design.

“There’s more language that’s required, and as a result there is more language and text competing for the same amount of real estate,” he says.

Just so we’re clear, this is the Assistant Secretary of State for Communications confirming that the Republican voter suppression law did in fact suppress votes by making the process sufficiently confusing that thousands of regular voters cast ballots that had to be rejected. They could have ameliorated this problem by delaying implementation of the law until 2023, which would have given the SOS and county officials enough time to design a better mail ballot (which includes the envelope and any supplemental materials) as well as giving the SOS enough time to properly communicate the changes and anything else that county officials needed to know. But they didn’t, and this was the result. Again, I just want to be clear on that.

Chimene says the League of Women Voters of Texas has been working with the Center for Civic Design to create a pamphlet for Texas voters that breaks down everything they need to do to make sure their ballot is counted.

“And that involved simplifying the words and using images and graphics and using bolding and other methods that they specialize in to make voter information that makes sense,” Chimene says.

The plan is to get county election officials to include these pamphlets with vote-by-mail materials. Chimene says hopefully their easy-to-read guides will clear up any confusion.

I certainly hope that county election officials pay heed to this. I continue to maintain that the Texas Democratic Party, the county parties, the candidates and elected officials and affiliated groups and so on, also had and have a responsibility to communicate to their voters what they need to know and do to vote by mail. This is just too important to leave to anyone else, even if it is their job.

The good news is that we know that making changes like this can work, because Bexar County has proven it.

The mail ballots of Bexar County voters in the primary runoff are being returned at a significantly lower rate when compared to the March primary election earlier this year.

About one in five mail ballots for the March Primary were being rejected by the elections office under rigorous new standards set by the Texas Legislature under SB1, the state’s new controversial voting law. However, as of the day before the May primary runoff election, the rejection rate has dropped to less than 1% according to the Bexar County Elections Administrator.

About 16,000 mail ballots have been received by the office so far and the rejection rate is drastically lower than the 22% seen in March.

“The rejection rate for the Democrats is 0.9% and the rejection rate for the Republicans is 0.4% so we are genuinely thrilled,” said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen.

There are twice as many Democratic Primary ballots that have been received compared to Republican Primary ballots, Callanen added.

[…]

In March, out of the 18,000 ballots received, about 4,000 were rejected.

After that, Callanen said her office made adjustments.

“Just from looking at the raw numbers right now, it looks like it worked,” she said.

That included an insert that was in both English and Spanish.

“We came up with an insert to put in there to assist the voters so they don’t miss on the envelopes with the very tiny print that they need to put on their (Texas Drivers License), or the last four of your social, so we are really excited and now at this point now we’re looking forward to November,” she said.

Another adjustment was increasing the font size on the envelope relating to the new SB1 requirements.

“What we basically did was, we took the area under the flap with all the legalese and we blew it up,” she said referring to the font size which she said was boosted to 12 point font.

We’ve discussed the Bexar County success story before, and I will bang the drum for their example again. I will also note that even within that, there’s room for improvement on the Dem side, which is why it’s important for the Texas Democratic establishment to take their own initiative. I can’t say this often or loudly enough: It is too important to do anything less.

These were the stories I found when I did my latest Google News search for mail ballot rejections. We should have final vote canvasses on Tuesday, so maybe we’ll get some numbers – and some reporting – from other counties as well. I will follow up and let you know.

Checking in again on the wastewater

COVID levels keep creeping up.

After the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 1 million deaths on Monday, new data shows numbers on the rise again.

The latest Houston Health Department wastewater results from May 9 show levels are now higher than they were in July of 2020.

The viral load on May 9 was 127 percent higher in comparison to July 6, 2020.

The July 2020 readings serve as a baseline for wastewater testing, since that was during the summer surge of cases.

The positivity rate in Houston is also now at 8 percent. At the end of March, Houston’s wastewater positivity rate was 2 percent.

Since the results are delayed, levels are likely higher now.

Houston Methodist is also reporting a rise in cases over the last two weeks.

[…]

“We have also seen our first cases of BA.4 and BA.5, which we will continue to monitor, since literature suggests these variants escape immunity from previous Omicron infection,” [Dr. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist] tweeted. “Vaccines are still our best defense against COVID-19 along with masking and distancing.”

Long also says while the wastewater levels are nearly 30 percent higher than the July 2020 surge, that the public shouldn’t be fearful, but shouldn’t ignore the trend either.

“The bottom line is, the amount of virus in the community is going up,” Long said. “That’s one thing we know for sure. I wouldn’t be worried, but I would be paying attention.”

There was a story in the Sunday print edition of the Chron about the Houston wastewater tracking, with a byline from the NY Times, but I could not find it online. Note that this KHOU story reports on the May 9 virus level in two different ways, saying that the viral load is “127 percent higher” and also that it is “nearly 30 percent higher”. The latter is correct – the Houston COVID dashboard says that the COVID load is “127% in comparison to the July 2020 level”, which is to say up 27%. Pay attention in those math classes, people.

At this point, until there is a new type of vaccine, we have what we’re going to get. I heard on the CityCast Houston podcast that the vax level in Harris County is about 67%, which is better than it used to be but still too low to really slow things down. What we can do is whatever we can to get the unvaxxed people in our lives to get the shots, and we can get boosted – one if we’re under 50, two if we’re over. Get your kids boosted, which also very much means getting them vaxxed in the first place – only about 30% of kids in this range have had two shots, which is just madness to me. Wear your masks when in indoor public places again, and avoid needless indoor public gatherings. You have to take care of yourself now, so do it. Until it gets worse – and I still hope it won’t – this is the best you can do.

UPDATE: The May 16 numbers are now on the dashboard, and they show that we are at 170% of the July 6, 2020 level. Not great!

A few remaining threads from the runoffs

It was, as noted, a smooth and easy night in Harris County, despite the folderol from earlier in the day.

Harris County election drama in the courts did not prevent voting officials from what could be a record speedy count.

At midnight, only two of the 520 ballots boxes used for Tuesday’s election were outstanding, meaning the vast majority were in the hands of officials who were rapidly counting them.

“I will be a happy girl if we get everything in by 1 a.m.,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County elections administrator. “This is what happens with a well executed plan.”

By 11:30 250 Democratic and 246 Republican polling sites had turned in their ballots, while about 20 more were on site and awaiting a procedural check before officials signed off on the receipt. Each party had 260 locations, which they shared, meaning election counters at NRG Arena had 189 of the needed 520 ballot boxes.

About 150 cars snaked through the NRG parking lot earlier in the night, Longoria said, moving “slow and steady.”

On the official count, five ballot boxes were listed as outstanding at 11:45 p.m., which quickly ticked down.

See here for the background. Still no word from SCOTx as far as I know. It sure would be nice if this “easy night, returns posted in a timely fashion” became the new narrative.

There are still a couple of unresolved elections. CD15 is way too close to call.

With all precincts reporting on Tuesday night, Democratic primary candidate for Congressional District 15 Michelle Vallejo led the race ahead of Ruben Ramirez by only 23 votes. Of the 12,063 total votes reported on Wednesday morning, Vallejo received 6,043 votes and Ramirez received 6,020 votes district-wide.

Hilda Salinas, assistant director of the Hidalgo County Elections Department, said that the race was too close to call on Wednesday morning, with a final result expected on Thursday, June 2.

“We still have to wait for all the out of county ballots and mail-in ballots to come in,” Salinas said. “The Ballot Board will be meeting on Wednesday to finalize everything so that everything can be canvassed on Thursday.”

The canvassing process is the final step before certification of results, and it includes a careful tally of all ballots.

“As per Texas election code, there’s certain ballots that still have time to come in and be counted by our ballot board,” Salinas added.

Both campaigns declined to comment on Wednesday morning on whether a call for a recount could occur over the next week.

Vallejo issued a statement late Tuesday night: “Though the race is too close to call, we are heartened by the clear path to victory.”

A statement from the Ramirez campaign Wednesday morning stated, “Our campaign trusts in the democratic process and integrity of this election. We know that our election workers are doing all they can to get us a result, and we thank them for their tireless work.”

We’ll see what happens. CD15 is the closest district based on the new map and the 2020 returns, and it’s a big target for Republicans, with their candidate already rolling in cash. It would be nice to get this resolved quickly so the nominee can move forward.

And of course, there’s CD28, which is almost as close.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, boldly declared victory just before midnight in his nail-biter primary runoff race. But his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, refused to concede, as the race was separated by less than 200 votes with all counties reporting their votes.

“This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted,” she said in a tweet, shortly after Cuellar declared himself the winner.

Just before midnight in Texas, Cuellar led Cisneros by a mere 177 votes.

At the time he declared victory, no major news organization had called the race.

“Tonight, the 28th Congressional District spoke, and we witnessed our great Democratic system at work,” he said in a statement. “The results are in, all the votes have been tallied — I am honored to have once again been re-elected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress.”

With such a narrow margin, it is likely the race may not be decided for days. Mail-in votes from domestic voters can still be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday and are received by counties by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The race is also within the margin that Cisneros can request a recount.

I’m ready for this race to be over. Just tell me who won so we can move on with our lives. I fully expect there will be a recount, however.

Runoff results: Harris County

As with the statewide roundup, here are the results from Harris County. As of 10 PM, 99 of 260 voting centers had reported, so while these results aren’t final, it seems likely to me that not much will change.

Congressional Dem

CD38 – Diana Martinez Alexander vs. Duncan Klussman. Klussman had a 67-33 lead after early voting (65-35 as of 10 PM) and looked to be an easy winner.

SBOE Dem

SBOE4 – Coretta Mallet-Fontenot vs Staci Childs. Childs was up 56.5 to 43.5, and was leading big in early in person voting (62%) and Tuesday voting (65%), which helped her overcome a 1,200 vote deficit in mail ballots. Given that trend, I’d say she’s on her way to winning.

State House Dems

HD147 – Jolanda Jones vs Danielle Bess. Jones was up 55-45, and unlike the special election led in mail ballots (by 300 votes) and early in person voting (by 200 votes), while running nearly even on Tuesday (the tally was 520-508 for Bess as of 10 PM). She seems likely to hold on.

Harris County Dems

185th Criminal District Court – Andrea Beall vs Judge Jason Luong. Beall led 54-46 and had the advantage in all three forms of voting.

208th Criminal District Court – Beverly Armstrong vs Kim McTorry. Armstrong had a big lead in mail ballots, while McTorry had small margins in in-person voting, but it doesn’t look like it will be enough as Armstrong was up 52-48.

312th Family District Court – Teresa Waldrop vs Judge Chip Wells.
County Civil Court at Law #4 – Manpreet Monica Singh vs Treasea Treviño.

Waldrop (63%) and Singh (65%) were in command from the beginning. I believe Manpreet Singh will be the first Sikh on the bench if she wins in November.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones vs Ben Chou. Briones led 55-45, with similar margins across all three voting types.

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 2 – Sonia Lopez vs Steve Duble. Duble also led 55-45, using a 59-41 advantage in early in person ballots to overcome a modest deficit with mail votes.

Republicans

Alexandra Mealer cruised to victory for the County Judge nomination, while Jack Morman got his rematch in Precinct 2. The HD133 race was too close to call, with less than 100 votes separating Mano DeAyala and Shelley Barineau. Check on that one in the morning.

UPDATE: All of the Dems that were leading last night won. Mano DeAyala won in HD133 51-49.

The election night experience

Let me start off by saying that my heart breaks for everyone in Uvalde. I cannot begin to fathom the pain and loss they are experiencing. I don’t know when we as a society will act to protect people from gun violence, but we cannot act quickly enough. We certainly didn’t for Uvalde, or Santa Fe, or El Paso, or any of too many other places to name.

For the subject that I wanted to be thinking about yesterday, we start with this.

Harris County voters are in for a long election night, with full election results in primary runoff races not expected until well into Wednesday. The night also could be politically turbulent as a dispute plays out over one line in the state’s election code.

One reason for the expected slow count Tuesday is the Harris County Republican Party’s decision to break with the county’s ballot delivery plan, according to Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. After closing the polls, election judges will hand off ballots to law enforcement officers and deputized county staffers, who will drive the equipment to the central counting station at NRG Arena on the judges’ behalf. The Harris County GOP argues the plan violates state law, so they are advising their party’s election judges to drive the ballots to NRG themselves. The Texas Secretary of State’s office agrees with the GOP’s assessment.

An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process. In the past, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station has fallen to these election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day.

Despite the GOP’s criticism, at least 40 Republican judges are choosing to participate in the county’s plan.

The dispute seems to be more about politics than the law, Martin Renteria, a Republican election judge in Harris County, said. He has no problem trusting a law enforcement officer to deliver the ballots, especially in a primary election where a Republican candidate is going to win no matter what.

“A Republican is going to win during the primary election. It’s going to be Republican versus Republican,” Renteria said. “It’s just illogical to me, and this is a part of the story that nobody talks about.”

[…]

Under state law, ballots should be delivered by either the election judge or an election clerk designated by that judge.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee to address delayed election results, Longoria argued the plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

“The election code does not speak to the delivery other than the presiding judge must turn over those election records to our election office. So it doesn’t speak to who has to drive to meet the other person to do so,” Longoria said.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office has disagreed with her interpretation and urged the county to change its plan.

“Harris County’s decision to allow volunteers to transport election records — including voted ballots — to the county’s Central Count location on Election Night is incompatible with the Texas Election Code and violates well-established chain of custody protocols spelled out under Texas law,” Texas Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor said in a statement on Friday.

However, Gerald Birnberg, an elections attorney and General Counsel to the Harris County Democratic Party, questioned the Secretary of State’s logic, pointing out that its own office deputizes others to perform certain duties.

“The same way that the Secretary of State is deputizing these people in his office to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State on statutory matters, to perform his statutory duties, the elections administrator is deputizing individuals to carry out duties and responsibilities and functions that are otherwise prescribed to be discharged by the elections administrator,” Birnberg said.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office maintains the Secretary of State’s office knew about the strategy and raised no objections when they implemented the ballot delivery plan during the May 7 election.

In a statement, Longoria said: “In April, the EA’s Office discussed the May 7 law enforcement and county driver program with the Secretary of State’s Office’s Managing Attorney of the Elections Division, specifically requesting guidance and recommendations. The SOS raised no concerns, legal or otherwise, with the program. Further, the EA’s Office discussed the plan for both May elections with both political parties as early as April 7. Both parties had the opportunity to ask questions, review the chain of custody document, and raise issues. Neither party raised concerns.

In fact, the first time any concerns were raised occurred during a public meeting May 11 at the Election Committee Hearing by the Secretary of State’s Office. One week later, just six days from election day, the Harris County Republican Party notified us that its judges would not participate in the program.”

See here for the background. Later in the day, we got this.

With voters walking into polling places and ballots set to arrive at NRG Arena in a few hours, Harris County’s Republican Party has challenged the process election officials will use to transfer ballots from locations to the central counting center, citing concerns with handing the machines over to anyone but precinct judges.

In the 18-page filing to the Texas Supreme Court around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the local Republican party says despite assurances that election officials have it under control, state election law and past experience make them wary to hand over ballots to emissaries so they can ferry to a central location.

Cindy Siegel, chairwoman of the Harris County GOP, said officials are impeding on the democratic process.

“They are trying to make it as difficult as possible, and talking people out (of driving ballots themselves) by warning them there will be long lines,” Siegel said. “They are scaring people into creating this system that isn’t even legal.”

Lawyers for the GOP argue the county is ignoring state election laws and breaking the mandatory chain of custody for ballots.

“An essential component of the central counting station is the physical delivery of sealed ballot boxes and access to the central counting station is necessary (for) that process to take place,” the filing states.

The petition asks the high court to order Harris County to allow election judges to drive their own precinct ballots to the central counting center at NRG Park.

The request drew a fast rebuke from Democratic Party leaders and Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee.

“Their leadership has known about the County’s election day plans for some time, yet they waited until 6 hours before the polls close to now ask a court to throw the plans out the window and put residents’ votes at risk,” Menefee said in a statement. “And in their lawsuit, they flat out misrepresent the county’s plans to the court, making several statements that they know are demonstrably false.”

[…]

“(Longoria’s) office successfully used constables in the May 7 election, and the GOP had no problem at that time,” said Odus Evbagharu, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “Now, someone wakes up on Election Day and suddenly thinks law enforcement officials and deputized election officers are an issue?”

Siegel said that is precisely why the GOP is suing.

It is the May 7 election, and widespread problems that day, that prompted the concerns in the first place. She said Republican judges only learned the day before that election that they would have to hand ballots over at polling sites, rather than drive them downtown themselves. In a handful of cases, no one came to pick up the ballots — leading the election judge to take them home — or couriers failed to drop them off in a timely manner. As a result, the county did not complete its count until Sunday morning, even though fewer than 115,000 ballots had been cast.

Again, I didn’t have a problem with the May 7 reporting. There’s clearly a difference of interpretation of the law here, and if that can’t be resolved on its own then a courtroom is the proper venue. I have a hard time believing that this couldn’t have been litigated before Tuesday afternoon, however. I started writing this post at 8 PM, and as of that time there had been no ruling from SCOTx. I don’t know when they plan on ruling, but at some point it just doesn’t matter.

UPDATE: It’s 10:30 PM, more than a third of the Tuesday votes have been counted, and I see nothing on Twitter or in my inbox to indicate that SCOTx has issued a ruling. So let’s think about this instead:

Well said. Good night.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story about the GOP’s lawsuit over the results delivery process. I still don’t see any mention of a decision being handed down. And for all of the fuss, final results were posted at 1:26 AM, which seems pretty damn reasonable to me. The midnight update had about 98% of ballots counted on the Dem side and about 95% on the GOP side – 70,016 of 72,796 Dem votes and 105,486 of 116,100 GOP votes. Seriously, this was a fine performance by the Elections Office.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

Hey look! Some info about mail ballots in the May election!

It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the second time in less than two weeks, Texans are heading back to the polls to decide on a host of statewide and local elections.

Voters are deciding who should come out on top in primary runoff elections. However, issues with election counting in Harris County have led to some frustration, but some widespread issues of the past may be corrected during this primary runoff.

“So far it’s been a really busy day, we’re really pleased with the turnout,” Nadia Hakim, Deputy Director of Communication and Voter outreach for Harris County elections said.

[…]

Those voting by mail are reminded by officials to complete the identification fields to avoid the ballot being rejected.

“So what we saw during March 1st was a high rate of rejection for mail ballots. Of course, it was our first large election with SB1 put into place and unfortunately, we saw a similar trend for the May 7th election. It was about a 20 percent rejection rate again,” Hakim said.

Voters are urged to contact the Harris County election office with any questions regarding issues they may face at 713-755-6965.

Disappointing, but not surprising. I have mentioned speaking with the elections office a couple of times, and this was something I inquired about as well. At a closer look, the rejection rate for the May 7 election was closer to 15% than 20% as cited in the story, but still too high and almost as high as it had been in March. As we’ve discussed, the people who voted in the May election likely included a lot of people who hadn’t voted in March, so this was their first experience with the new voter suppression law. The statewide rate of mail ballot rejection from March was about 12-13%, and it was about 19% in Harris County. I still want to know what the statewide rate was for the May election, and of course I care a lot about what it will be for the runoff, where there should be a greater percentage of voters who now do know what to do.

I will have more questions about this for after the runoff, but in the meantime I came across this story from Bexar County, which is my nominee for the cutting edge leader in doing this right.

After a rocky first election under new requirements for voting by mail, Bexar County Elections officials are celebrating a sharp decline in rejection of mail ballots.

Though more Bexar County voters voted by mail in the May 7 election than had in the Mar. 1 primary, the preliminary mail ballot rejection rate of 3% was far lower than the 21.7% that left thousands of ballots uncounted two months earlier.

[…]

“Those [March] numbers – it was a tragedy. It was personal. It was personal to us. Everything is personal to us,” said Elena Guajardo, a mail clerk for the Bexar County Elections Department.

Trying to avoid a repeat of the issues in the primary, Bexar County Elections officials highlighted the new requirement on the elections department website ahead of the May 7 election.

They also included an informational insert in every mail ballot, alerting voters to the new ID requirement and recommended writing both numbers, in case one of them wasn’t linked to their voter registration.

Their efforts appear to have paid off.

“We had a success story in this election,” said Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen, who previously said a typical election would “probably” have a 2% to 3% rejection rate.

That story was from May 13, before the official canvass and the deadline for curing deficient ballots, so the numbers may have changed a bit. Regardless, this is damned impressive. Some of it was just learning from the initial experience and being able to be prepped from day one, which was not the case in March due to slowness in providing information by the Secretary of State, and part of it is clearly this strategy of pointing the voters in the right direction up front. Bexar County was talking about this at the time, and now that we can see how well it worked, every other county should look to emulate them. It’s a pain that they have to do this, but it is what it is. Kudos to Bexar County for showing the way.

Tomorrow is Primary Runoff Day

You know the drill, this is your last chance to vote in the primary runoffs. We will finally have the 2022 lineup set for November and can concentrate all of our attention and attacks on the other guys. The map of Tuesday voting locations in Harris County is here – there will be 263 locations, you can vote at any of them, but remember that this map only shows 50 at a time, so if you don’t see something close to you either go to the next 50 or search by your address. An alphabetized list of all locations is here.

I continue to be obsessed by mail ballots and their rejection rates, which was a huge story in March and (very annoyingly) has largely dropped off the radar since. I have some info about mail ballot rejections in the May election in the next post, and in the same search for news that I did on Sunday I found this story from El Paso about their primary runoff experience so far.

More than one of every seven mail ballots cast in El Paso for the primary runoff elections were rejected, mostly because of failure to comply with new steps required this year, the county’s election administrator said.

That rejection rate is much higher than in previous years, when fewer than 10% of mail ballots were thrown out, but down from the 45% rejection rate in the first week of early voting for the March 1 primary.

[…]

Through Wednesday, 562 mail-in ballots — or about 15% of the more than 3,800 cast — had been returned to voters, most because they did not include a driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number on the ballot envelope, El Paso County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise said.

Wise said 165 of the returned ballots had been “cured” as of Wednesday, meaning voters had fixed the error. The 397 remaining rejected mail-in ballots — and any others that might be rejected before Tuesday’s runoff elections — can only be counted if they’re cured by next week.

[…]

Wise said the elections office has been proactive in trying to reduce the number of rejected ballots.

“This election, we began highlighting the carrier envelope from the beginning, alerting voters to the required information. That happened about halfway through with the primary election,” she said. “I believe that is helping with the percentage (of rejected ballots), and many of these voters are getting a second look at the new requirements as well.”

In the March primary, more than 1,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in the first week of early voting. Many voters were able to cure their ballots, but more than 700 mail-in ballots in El Paso County were discarded after election officials found non-compliance with state law and the voters failed to fix the problem. An El Paso Matters analysis found that the vast majority of rejected ballots were from regular voters, many of whom had been registered to vote in the county for decades.

That last sentence is why I’ve been beating the drum about this, and emphasizing that the Democratic Party and its candidates, groups, clubs, and volunteers need to be leading the effort to educate their voters. (The rejection rate in Harris County was at about twelve percent, better than March but still too high.) Some county election offices have been doing a good job of this, but we can’t count on that. This is fixable, but people have to know what they need to do. And if you have received a mail ballot but for whatever the reason decide you want to vote in person, bring the mail ballot with you and turn it in when you go to vote in person.

Debtors’ court, part 2

Also not good.

One day last September, while trying to pay for groceries, Leslie Alvarez got the shock of her life. All the money in her bank account had disappeared.

The Houston single mother called her bank. An employee told Alvarez that her accounts had been placed on a legal hold. A person she did not know had been authorized to remove money from her accounts.

“I had to tell my kids they had to wait awhile so I could go make money to get what they needed,” she said.

Alvarez was forced to pay up on a $1,500 cash loan as part of a debt judgment issued against her in a Harris County civil court.

Texas doesn’t allow people’s wages to be garnished to pay off debts unless it is to collect child support. By law, however, courts can designate special officers, known as turnover receivers, to force payments by freezing or seizing bank accounts. The legal process became popular in Harris County but has been used all over the state more commonly in recent years, officials say.

“This is the only real way a debt collector can hurt you,” said Craig Noack, a creditor’s attorney in San Antonio who also serves as a court-appointed receiver in Texas.

At issue, though, is whether courts have adequate oversight to ensure a fair process.

Each year, tens of thousands of Texans are subject to a bank seizure as a result of a default judgment that was declared against them because they didn’t show up in court to fight a lawsuit over a debt.

But here’s the dilemma: Most debtors don’t know that they can have their bank accounts cleaned when a debt collector wins a default judgment against them unless they claim exemptions for certain sources of funds, such as child support, Social Security, unemployment benefits and retirement funds. Alvarez had child support payments in her accounts when they were seized.

Just this month, the Supreme Court of Texas took its first steps to establish parameters that would ensure that debtors are informed of their rights to claim exemptions. Under new rules, which took effect May 1, debt collectors must provide at least 17 days for debtors to inform courts that they have funds or property that is exempt from seizure.

“The purpose of these rules and forms is to try to help even out a little bit the playing field so that the debtors get more information,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said.

[…]

In the Houston region and other large Texas counties, default judgments rose by 86 percent between 2012 and last year, data show.

“As long as people don’t respond, debt collectors can get a default judgment,” said Ann Baddour, director of the fair financial services project at Texas Appleseed, a consumer advocacy group in Austin. “There’s just this motivation to move forward and sue.”

Even the Texas Creditors Bar Association, a statewide organization of attorneys that engages in debt collections, says it wants to make sure debt collectors don’t take money that is protected by law.

They support the notifications, said Noack, who represented the Texas Creditors Bar Association in discussions before the Supreme Court Advisory Committee about the new rules.

“You’re not going to find a creditor’s attorney out there who wants to take somebody’s Social Security,” he said.

Yet, among the many concerns consumer advocates say still must be addressed is the lack of oversight in Texas courts regarding the appointment of the court officers or turnover receivers.

Texas courts have no way to prevent abuses — or even mistakes — because judges are not required to track their appointments or keep periodic reports on the status of seizures, Houston consumer attorney Benjamin Sanchez said.

“You have these receivers who are doing things but not necessarily reporting back to the court,” Sanchez said.

See here for the previous entry. I hope we can all agree that no one should have their bank account drained as the result of a default judgment where they hadn’t known they needed to appear in court. There needs to be a lot more oversight here, and that’s first a job for the Legislature and then a job for the court system. One possible aspect to a solution might be a public defender system for civil litigation, modeled on the same system for criminal defendants. This is an idea I’ve seen advocated by others, and it makes sense on the principle that everyone should have the right to a lawyer to represent them in court. I’m no expert, I’m just throwing out an idea here. Whatever the case, there’s a real need for reform.

So what did happen with the HD147 special election?

I was alerted by a comment on an earlier post to this.

Danielle Bess

Things are getting heated in the race to replace State Representative Garnet Coleman in District 147.

Jolanda Jones narrowly won the race in Saturday’s special election with 202 more votes than Danielle Keys Bess, according to Harris County.

But Bess is calling for an audit of Saturday’s special election results with a focus on mail-in ballots.

In an open letter to the Harris County Elections Board Administrator Thursday, Bess questioned the number of mail-in ballots counted.

She said the there were twice as many mail ballots Saturday compared to the March primary. But the early voting and election day turnout numbers were much lower Saturday than during the primary.

Jones responded by accusing Bess of “taking a page straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook.”

“Just like Donald Trump, and with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, my opponent is trying to overturn the results of a valid election with a bogus audit of mail ballots,” Jones said in a statement. “I expect she will next announce the hiring of Rudy Giuliani to lead the effort and organize a riot at Commissioners Court on the day the valid election results are certified.”

You can see the open letter on Instagram. I know what an election contest is, and I know what a recount is, but this was new to me. So I asked the elections office, and I was told that this was a reference to the post-election audit, also known as the Partial Manual Count. This audit is required for all elections that have paper ballots. It’s not something a candidate can request or specify a race for. The SOS selects a number of precincts and races to review, and the elections office has to hand count the paper ballots to ensure they match the digital records. Local election officials do not have any control over what is asked to be audited or what precincts are chosen for the audit.

I am told that the SOS selected ten precincts from the State Proposition 2 election for the Partial Manual Count. The deadline for the results of the PMC to be reported is May 28.

I also called Danielle Bess and asked her if she was requesting a recount or filing an election contest, and she said not at this time. Unless that changes, this is the end of the story for the HD147 special election.

Is there something unusual about the mail ballot totals in the HD147 special election? Bess’ open letter talks about how much greater a portion of the final vote total mail ballots were in the May special election than they were in the March primary. In the May special election, HD147 mail ballots were 29.4% of all ballots cast. But mail ballots were 26.0% of all ballots cast in Harris County in the May election (31,157 mail ballots cast in May out of 119,721 total). If that had been the proportion in HD147 there would have been 1,273 mail ballots instead of 1,440, a difference of 177. Jolanda Jones won by 205 votes, so you can’t make up the difference this way.

Mail ballots in HD147 in March were 9.58% of the total. Mail ballots overall in Harris County in the Democratic primary were 10.59% of the total. So mail ballots were proportionally a larger share of the total in HD147 in May than in March, but not by enough to raise my eyebrows. These were different elections, and Team Jolanda clearly had an incentive to push mail ballots, since she did so well with them in March. As I said before, this looks like the successful execution of a strategy to me. Mail ballots are clearly a big part of the vote in the primary runoff right now, but that can change as there’s still Runoff Day to be had, and there will surely be a push by all candidates to get people out to vote on Tuesday. I’ll check and see what those numbers look like afterwards.

2022 primary runoff Day Five EV report: Yes, I have some info about mail ballots

Early voting has concluded for the primary runoffs. Here’s the final EV report, and here are the final totals:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    16,767  25,294   42,061
GOP    13,187  50,498   63,685

You can compare to Day Three. As is always the case, the last day was the busiest for in person voting. Republicans have already exceeded their runoff turnout from 2018, but they only had four races then, and only one of them was countywide, for a District Court position. The runoff in CD02 generated more than half of their total votes. Dems had a runoff for Governor, for all of the countywide executive positions, and for CD07. We will end up with more votes in this runoff than in 2018, though given the different nature of each, for each party, I don’t know how much it matters. I’ll put it to you this way: Dems had 35K turnout in the 2006 primary runoff, which was almost the same amount as the 2006 primary. Republicans drew all of 10K for their runoff, which consisted of one appellate court position and the open seat in HD133. You have to look past the topline numbers, because the races themselves matter.

Anyway. At a wild guess, I’d say Dems end up with 60-70K, Republicans with 85-100K. I’m told (because I asked) that mail ballot rejections were running at around 12% and trending slightly down after the initial batch. Still way too high, but at least it’s down from where we were in March. I’ll be on the lookout for totals from around the state. Have you voted yet?

On reporting election night results faster

Not sure about this.

Ahead of next week’s primary runoff elections, Harris County officials are recruiting county staffers to help speed up the results by picking up ballots at polling locations and driving them to the county’s central count location. Harris County was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting ballots in an election held earlier this month, even with assistance from law enforcement officers who took on delivery duties.

In the past, the responsibility of delivering the ballots has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Starting with the May 7 election, law enforcement officers with the Harris County Constables offices and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office picked up the ballots and made the delivery instead. The change didn’t do much to cut down on reporting time. While Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 a.m. Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

This week, Harris County officials plan to train and deputize full-time county staffers from various departments to take on those delivery duties, as well. An email sent to county staffers on Tuesday from Harris County Administrator Dave Berry and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria requested volunteers to help expedite the process.

“What’s required? Drive to a single polling location and pick up two sets of voting equipment, from both the Democratic and Republican sides, for the May 24th Primary Runoff Election. Return the equipment to NRG and be greeted with snacks, water, and a big THANK YOU for your service,” officials wrote in the email.

Each participating law enforcement officer or county employee will be assigned on average two polling locations, which will cut down by half the total number of cars lined up at central count at the end of the night, according to a spokesperson with the Election Administrator’s office.

While all Texas counties must comply with the state election code regulations — which were modified significantly when Senate Bill 1 went into effect last year — the Election Day ballot counting process varies considerably depending on the county.

At a May 11 hearing with the House Elections Committee, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers his county speeds up results by using multiple dropoff spots on Election Night, instead of one central count location.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional dropoff locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Rep. Mike Schofield, a Harris County Republican, told Longoria and committee members he was alarmed by Harris County’s plans to deputize county staffers to make deliveries.

“I would be very, very troubled to find out in November that we were just deputizing whoever the elections office thought it wanted to deputize to go touch my election results and bring them to the central counting station,” he said. “So let’s make sure that we know what the law is and that we’re following it because that’s not kosher. Or at least doesn’t seem kosher.”

According to the story, Keith Ingram of the SOS office said he disagreed with Harris County’s interpretation of the law in question. He’s not a lawyer and that’s not an official pronouncement, but that sounds to me like it’s maybe not the best plan to pursue, as there could be unwanted consequences from it. I will say, it’s not clear to me why this would be illegal. I can’t think of any reason why trained county staff would be any less reliable or trustworthy than election judges, who had to be trained by the same election office people to do the same thing. Maybe this is just a quirk of the law if in fact it is not in compliance with it, maybe there was some nutball conspiracy theory reason for county election workers to be not on the sanctioned list of vote-equipment-deliverers, or maybe there’s a legitimate reason that I’m not aware of. All I can say is that at first glance it’s not clear to me why it should be off limits.

That said, rather than risk a confrontation over this, maybe the multiple dropoff points plan is better, as that seems to be how other counties do it. I will confess total ignorance here about why that might not work for Harris County. Maybe it’s just not a thing we’ve done before and so we don’t have a workable plan in place. I’d say one of the first questions we should be asking the next Election Administrator is what they think about this.

There’s also this:

The Harris County GOP is urging Republican election judges to break with Harris County’s election night plan for next week’s primary runoff, arguing the county’s ballot delivery protocol violates the law. Earlier this week, Harris County officials sent an email to county staffers asking for volunteer drivers to help expedite the ballot counting process for the upcoming primary runoff. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.

In hopes of speeding up election results, the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office also used this plan earlier this month in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s sole central counting station. However, the Harris County GOP is pushing back on that plan and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots to central count themselves.

While the Harris County GOP is opposing the county’s ballot delivery plan, in an email to the Chronicle, party chair Cindy Siegel outlined strategies they would support in order to speed up election results. Those included better tracking of equipment and improved training for staffers receiving ballots.

Their key recommendation: “Include multiple drop off locations around the county with livestream video of the drop off process.”

At the May 11 hearing, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers that’s the system they use to speed up results.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional drop-off locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Under the tenure of former Republican County Clerk Stan Stanart, Harris County used four drop-off locations to count ballots. Stanart reassured voters the system of transmitting ballot counts was secure.

When the county clerk’s office flipped to Democratic control in 2018, the new County Clerk Diane Trautman intended to use multiple locations, as well, but scrapped the plan after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said the county would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet. Trautman told Commissioners Court in November 2019 she believed her system to relay results was legal, but rather than risk a lawsuit, Harris County would begin to count votes at a single location.

In this year’s primary election on March 1, Harris County used four drop-off locations to shorten the drive time for election judges, according to the Elections Administrator’s office spokesperson Leah Shah. She said they’ve returned to one drop-off location while trying to implement a program to reduce the need for multiple locations.

In response to the Harris County GOP urging judges to transport ballots themselves, Shah said the Elections Administrator’s office has sent out an email to GOP election judges notifying them that they can “opt in” to the county’s plan if they don’t want to drive the ballots themselves. Thirty-one GOP judges have opted in so far, according to Shah.

Someone is going to need to explain to me what Tarrant County is doing differently than what Harris County would have done under Diane Trautman’s plan. Having multiple dropoff locations makes sense to me, so let’s figure out what needs to happen from there and go forward with it. Make that a top priority for the next elections administrator. And again, election night reporting for the earlier May election was fine. If we have a similar experience on Tuesday night, that too will be fine.

2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Lots of optimism in here.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s final survey of the Houston area leaves him with hope. Yes, residents are concerned about the economy and crime, and their mental health has not improved even as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to wane, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to the 2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey released Tuesday.

Shifting attitudes toward public education, diversity and Houston’s place in America’s growth, in particular, give Klineberg reason for optimism — and if there’s anyone here who can claim to be an expert on Houston’s population, it’s the man who has annually written the most comprehensive report on the city’s residents since the survey’s inception in 1981.

“It’s hard to be pessimistic over the long haul in Houston because there’s just so many things happening in Houston. Whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you care about, there’s wonderful things happening in the city, and a population that really cares about Houston and wants it to succeed,” Klineberg said.

Still, there’s no denying that Houstonians have real concerns about the state of the city. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s 1,958 randomly selected respondents said that the economy was their biggest concern, and crime closely followed with 25 percent.

The pandemic also left lasting scars on residents’ mental health. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that their stress and anxiety have increased, and 57 percent reported feeling increasingly lonely and isolated since the pandemic started over two years ago.

[…]

Nearly two-thirds of Houston-area residents said they support a person’s right to an abortion for any reason, and more than 90 percent said they support it if the person’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.

Klineberg was glad to see, for the first time since the survey began, that a majority of non-Hispanic white people, 51 percent, agree that people of color don’t have the same opportunities as them — a 15 percent rise since 2020. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic people now agree with that statement, and 17 percent of Black people.

“For the first time over the years of the surveys, majorities in all three of Houston’s largest ethnic communities now agree in acknowledging the racial inequities in access to economic opportunity in American society today,” the report states.

The survey later adds that “area residents of all ethnicities have been giving increasingly positive evaluations to relations among the ethnic communities, and they are more likely than ever before to say that they have close personal friends across the ethnic divides.”

That’s especially important in Houston, says Klineberg, because U.S. census projections show that the rest of the country will mirror Harris County’s racially diverse demographic in the coming decades, according to the report.

“Houston is called upon to be a model for the rest of the nation, to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society, comprising virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered here, in this one remarkable place,” the report states.

Among its most notable finds, for Klineberg, was a big jump in the percentage of people who support “significantly more money” for public schools, up to 67 percent from 55 percent in 2020. In 1995, that number was just 41 percent.

The steady rise in support for education funding signals to Klineberg that Houstonians may be moving away from the industrial mindset during the oil and gas boom of the 1960s and 1970s — when loose regulations, free enterprise and low taxes helped wealthy businessmen flourish, but left many others behind.

“Area residents, who have traditionally been opposed to government intervention of almost any sort, appear to be rethinking their basic assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty in America,” the report states.

See here for what I had on the 2020 Survey. I must have missed the 2021 Survey but I’ve blogged about several others in the past: 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. The Kinder HAS page is here, and I recommend you peruse it when you get a minute. As the story notes, Dr. Stephen Klineberg is retiring from Rice after doing this survey work for 40 years, which has been a huge boon for all of us. There’s a nice retrospective of his work here. Enjoy!

2022 primary runoff Day Three EV report: Not quite as many mail ballots

Let’s get right to it. Here is the Day Three EV report for the primary runoffs. Here are the vote totals through Wednesday:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    15,675  10,993   26,668
GOP    12,735  26,794   39,527

And as a reminder, here they were for Day One:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    20,357   3,050   23,407
GOP    20,735   8,049   28,782

You may be wondering, as was Campos and as was I, what happened with the mail ballot totals? I called the Election Office to ask. The short answer is that they accidentally combined the Dem and GOP mail ballot totals in putting together the Monday report. They realized the error Tuesday morning, found where they had gone wrong, and fixed it for the Tuesday evening report. If you compare the numbers in the daily report to those in the unofficial ballot by mail report, the totals will match – I checked that on Wednesday before the Day Three report came out, and both it and the early voting roster numbers synched up. That’s all there was to it.

As for turnout so far, obviously the Republicans have more. The AG race is probably the main driver, but runoffs are funny, with a shorter timeframe for voting and fewer races of interest. In 2018, Dems went from 167,982 in the primary to 57,590 in the runoff. Republicans went from 156,387 in their primary to 50,959 in their runoff. I expect both to be exceeded this time around. Beyond that, not much to say. I’ll be voting today. Have you voted yet?

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

2022 primary runoff Day One EV report: Lots of mail ballots

No news story yet as I write this, so let’s just jump right in. Here is the Day One EV report for the primary runoffs. Note that there are only five days of early voting in the runoff – as of this morning, there are now four days left – so I won’t be doing any comparisons with March, and since every runoff is its own little universe I won’t compare with previous years. You can see the final EV report for March here, though do note that several thousand more mail ballots arrived between the Friday and the following Tuesday – in total, there were about 29K total mail ballots returned as of the final results. Just over 50K mail ballots were sent out to the primary voters – we know what happened to a bunch of them, but however you want to think about it a bit less than sixty percent of all mail ballots were successfully returned.

Here are the totals so far after the first day of early voting for the runoffs:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    20,357   3,050   23,407
GOP    20,733   8,049   28,782

That’s 41K mail ballots returned, with just under 55K ballots being sent out, for a successful return rate close to 80% so far, and that will go up as more ballots come in. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a sign that the problems of March have been at least somewhat ameliorated. To be sure, these are people who almost certainly voted in March and thus have learned their own lessons from that experience. This is why I was so keen to see numbers from the May election, because that had to include a lot more first-timers. This is still an encouraging sign, even if it’s for a smaller population.

This also means that the main thing to watch for going forward is the in person voting population, as there aren’t that many mail ballots left to return and there won’t be any more sent out. I don’t feel like trawling through the past to see what the pattern for these five-day EV periods looks like, but I’d bet a dollar that Friday will be the busiest day. It’s probably not too busy now, so take advantage of the shorter lines while you can.

Primary checkup

Let me start this post off by once again noting that I cannot find any reporting, like at all, about how many mail ballots were rejected for the May elections. Just nothing. It’s as if interest in the subject by anyone but me disappeared after all of the March stories. Maybe that will change with the primary runoffs, I don’t know. But man, am I discouraged by the lack of curiosity about this.

In searching for such stories, I came across this instead.

Texas lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to examine the reasons for election result delays and the effectiveness of new requirements for poll watchers.

When Texans took to the polls on March 1 for the first primary of the 2022 midterm elections, it was the first time statewide voting had taken place under a controversial new law that made several changes to the state’s voting system. Senate Bill 1 was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last September, after months of Democrats rallying and using procedural measures to block any action from being taken on it.

The Texas House Elections Committee began Wednesday’s meeting by asking state and county election officials why election results were delayed for the March primary election.

Speaking first before the committee was Isabell Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, the state’s largest county and home to Houston. Longoria said that many challenges larger counties face in reporting election results quickly are caused by the state’s new paper ballot system and rigid requirements on when to report results.

“This paper ballot system that we are moving to, I think has some, let us call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas Election Code,” Longoria told the lawmakers.

The challenges she cites include issues keeping track of and recording ballots that could be up to two pages long. In Texas, a person’s ballot is first inserted into a machine that records the choices made and prints them out on a physical copy. After that, the ballot is inserted into another machine where the votes are recorded and the paper ballot is stored before being transported to a central counting facility.

When asked by Representative John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, what else could be done to alleviate challenges for election workers, Longoria responded that defining what timely reporting means would be helpful. She pointed to the time needed to ensure every voter in line by 7 p.m. has an opportunity to vote, the time it takes to transport ballots through traffic and the time required to correct human errors. All of these factors lead to delays, Longoria said, stressing that the best solution could be to give larger counties more leeway, so they are not held to a strict time requirement.

The Chron also covered this. I get the concern, and I agree that Harris is an outlier, though the other big urban counties are also geographically large and have bad traffic, too. As I said, I thought Harris County’s reporting on the May election was basically fine, with the posting of regular updates going a long way towards alleviating anxiety about how it was going. Final results were available by the time most people would have been getting ready to begin their day on Sunday. I don’t see why anyone should freak out about that.

Which again isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. I strongly suspect Harris County could crib a bit from other counties’ processes. If there is some change that could be made to SB1 to make it easier on them, that should be considered as well – if we all care about getting results in a timely fashion, that should be an easy sell. But we should also note that in some states, like the ones that actually promote and widely use mail ballots, sometimes final results are not known for a few days. I don’t remember there being much discussion about the effect that adding paper ballots might have on election reporting as SB1 was being passed. Harris is also one of the newcomers to using printed ballots along with their electronic voting machines. There have been a lot of changes – maybe we just need to let things work themselves out a bit.

This story did at least mention the topic that now obsesses me:

Notably absent from the committee’s agenda was the increased number of rejected mail-in ballots as a result of a new Identification requirement in SB 1. The law requires voters who fill out a mail-in ballot to provide their driver’s license or Social Security number, depending on which was used to register to vote in the state.

Of the over 3 million ballots cast in the March primary, 24,636 mail-in ballots were not counted due to the new requirements. In many instances, voters failed to include the identification number on their ballot and others put a number that did not match the form of identification they used to register to vote, leading to their ballot being rejected.

[James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project] said that the issues discussed during the committee hearing should not have been their primary focus.

“The most important issue facing our elections right now is the catastrophic rate of vote-by-mail rejections that SB 1 caused,” said Slattery. “The committee is not facing this crisis of democracy that they caused.”

The absence of this issue was also noted by Representative Bucy before the meeting came to a close.

“We have 24,000 vote-by-mail ballots thrown out this last primary, did you say we will have a hearing to address that?” Bucy asked committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “I just think that is a crisis and I want to make sure this committee is on top of it.”

“Yes,” Cain responded. “The chair intends to do so.”

Cain said that after the May 24 runoff election, the committee will have more information to better examine the issue, leaving the impact of SB 1 still under the watchful eye of lawmakers, election officials and voters.

I mean, there’s still no reason why reporters at the newspapers can’t ask their local election admins about this. Surely there are some numbers out there to be had.

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

Early voting for the May 24 primary runoffs starts tomorrow

You know the drill. Primary runoffs are on, with early voting going on this week, Monday to Friday May 16 to May 20. Because it’s a runoff, you only get those five days. Voting happens from 7 AM to 7 PM each day, and you can find your EV locations here with the PDF here. As with the May special election it’s a smaller list of EV locations – it looks to me like there’s a handful more, but definitely fewer than it was for March and will be for November. Look to see if your favorite place is in use before you head out.

I’ve talked about the Chron’s lack of endorsements in the three judicial races they skipped for March till I’m blue in the face, for all the good it did me. The Chron chose instead to just re-run their original endorsements instead of considering the other races, which is not what I would have had them do. You can find all the judicial Q&As and interviews I did for the primary here, plus the ones I did for Janet Dudding, Staci Childs, and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot. The Erik Manning spreadsheet is still there, too.

We still have no idea how mail ballots went in the May election. Maybe if we’re good and we eat all our vegetables someone will report on that for this election. If you are a mail voter or know someone who is, please let us know if the experience was any different this time around versus in March. These were our chances to get it (more) right. It sure would be nice to know if that was successful. In the meantime, go vote.

Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

Endorsement watch: Reruns

The Chron re-endorses Lesley Briones for Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in the Democratic primary runoff.

Lesley Briones

The crowded Democratic race for Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner has narrowed, but the runoff remains competitive. Because of new precinct boundary lines, which include most of western Harris County before reaching into the West University area and curving back up and around Interstate 10, Republican and incumbent Jack Cagle will face the Democratic runoff winner with perhaps less of an edge than usual for incumbents.

Our pick for the spot, Lesley Briones, secured 34 percent of the vote, impressive in a field with three other candidates that got vote shares in the double digits. She will face challenger Ben Chou, who got 25 percent of the vote. At least one internal poll now shows him neck and neck with Briones in the lead-up to the runoff.

We wrote in February that the choice before voters was a tough one. That hasn’t changed. Neither has our endorsement.

Yes, I can confirm that the Chron endorsed Briones for March. That’s fine, and it’s fine if they want to remind us of who they have already recommended as we approach early voting for the primary runoffs – as I noted before, all of their March endorsees who were in Democratic races that went to runoff made it to that runoff, so they have no races on our side to revisit. They had at least one on the Republican side and made a new choice for County Judge. All I’m asking is that in addition to however many ICYMI pieces they go back and revisit the three judicial races that they ignored in March and make a choice now. I swear, it is not too much to ask.

BTW, my interview with Lesley Briones from the primary is here and my interview with Ben Chou is here. All my interviews from March plus judicial Q&As can be found here, and you can add the interviews with Janet Dudding for Comptroller, and Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot for SBOE4, plus a judicial Q&A with Beverly Armstrong for the 208th Criminal District Court.