Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Harris County

Poll: Michael Moore claims large lead in Commissioners Court race

From Keir Murray:

There’s an image of the polling memo at the tweet, and you can see the whole thing here. To sum up:

– About one fifth of voters had no preference initially, not surprising since Commissioners Court is a lower-profile race. Moore led Republican Tom Ramsey 42-39 in the initial ask, likely a recapitulation of the partisan mix, with Moore having slightly higher name recognition, perhaps due to having to compete in the primary runoff.

– After a positive message about both candidates, Moore led 53-39. After a negative message about both candidates, Moore led 50-35. Joe Biden led 53-39 in the precinct.

– This is of course an internal campaign poll, and the sample appears to be likely voters, sample size 508, margin of error 4.4%.

– While the notion of “shy Trump voters” has been discredited multiple times by various investigators, I can believe that Trump might get the bulk of the non-responsive respondents here. To put it another way, I believe Moore is winning. I don’t believe he’s really winning by fourteen points. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s very much on the high end of my expected range of outcomes.

– For comparison, Beto carried CC3 by four points in 2018. The stronger statewide Dems in 2018 carried it by a bit less, while the weaker Dems were losing it by five to seven points. Hillary Clinton lost CC3 by less than a point in 2016, but she ran well ahead of the partisan baseline, as the average Dem judicial candidate was losing it by ten points. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez, the next two strongest Dems in 2016, were losing CC3 by eight or nine points. You want to talk suburban shift? This here is your suburban shift. Not too surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of CD07 overlapping CC3.

– The larger point here is that if Dems have improved on Beto’s performance in CC3, that’s another data point to suggest that Biden is doing better than Beto, and a lot better than Clinton, in 2020. You can figure out what that means at the statewide level.

Again, internal poll, insert all the caveats here. I give you data points because I care.

Another example of why bail reform is needed

This is troubling in a lot of ways, but fortunately there is a path forward.

Since November, eight defendants fresh out of jail on bond have walked into state District Judge Ramona Franklin’s court and been sent right back to jail.

Instead of standing for a routine court hearing in a first step in their criminal court cases, they ended up back in sheriff’s custody after Franklin revoked their bail and ordered them back behind bars, sometimes with no lawyer present for the defendant.

The process has put Franklin at odds with defense attorneys across Harris County who argue she is engaging in behavior that unfairly penalizes defendants who are presumed innocent — and can cause them to lose thousands of dollars they have scraped together to pay their bail.

Defense attorneys say Franklin revoked their bonds without notice or cause, some of them without legal representation. They argue the process is illegal, in a judicial complaint filed earlier this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“Many times these people are effectively ambushed,” said Grant Scheiner, with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “They can’t defend themselves and have no access to counsel.”

[…]

When arrested, suspects usually appear before a magistrate who determines probable cause and a bail amount. After posting bail and being released from custody, they have about a day to appear before a district court judge, where they’re expected to be appointed counsel.

But Thiessen and Scheiner said the defendants complied with the rules of their appearance while Franklin violated procedure, going against the mandate recently issued in an appeals court.

“When the court of appeals hands down the decision telling you not to do something and you proceed contrary to that decision, it just shows a lack of respect for the court of appeals and the Constitution,” Thiessen said.

Franklin has said that she asks attorneys to stand in during those proceedings, the defense lawyers said, but no formal appointment or recording of those stand-in attorneys exists.

Most recently in these initial appearances, Franklin has called some of the defendants to her stand without an attorney present, Thiessen said. A prosecutor reads probable cause findings — the same document and evidence read to a magistrate — and Franklin revokes bond, raises bail amounts and remands the defendant into sheriff’s custody.

“The practice she is engaging in is very unusual,” said Amanda Peters, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston who teaches criminal procedure. “I’ve never seen a judge revoke a bond and then set a higher one if a defendant didn’t violate a condition of bond.”

In some cases, she has ordered defendants who’d posted bond be held without bail, a move defense attorneys say is a clear violation of their clients’ constitutional rights.

State law mandates that judges need to give the defendant “reasonable notice” that they intend to deny bail and allow “meaningful opportunity to be heard.”

Most of the defendants were denied the opportunity for representation before Franklin acted in their cases, using probable cause materials that are often considered inadmissible evidence in trials, Thiessen said.

“Each of these defendants appeared in court and had no notice of what was about to take place,” the defense lawyers said in the complaint. “No notice that Judge Franklin intended to revoke their bonds. No notice that Judge Franklin intended to deny them bail.”

What’s happening here is that the defendants had paid the bond required of them, had shown up in court for their next hearing as they were required to do, had no violations of their bail or other offenses that could cause their bail to be revoked, and yet their bail was either revoked or raised, for no apparent reason. One thing I didn’t realize that this story pointed out is that if you have paid the bond for (say) a $25K bail, and then your bail is subsequently raised to $50K, you don’t get back the amount you paid to the $25K bail so that it can apply to the higher bail. What you paid to the bail bondsman is now gone, and you are starting from scratch to pay the higher bail. Needless to say, lots of people can’t afford this.

I don’t know why Judge Franklin is doing this – she declined to comment for the story – and it’s not clear what can be done about it. What is being alleged here is illegal, but I don’t have a sense for what the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can or will do about it. We have certainly learned over the past few years that just having a law in place for something is not sufficient if there is not an enforcement mechanism in place that brings actual consequences for violating those laws. I hope members of the Legislature, and of Congress, who have criminal justice reform on their priority lists keep this in mind.

I also hope that the ongoing litigation over bail reform for felony defendants brings all of the current abuses of the system to light:

Those probable cause documents were the same materials magistrates used to set the initial bond amounts, meaning no new evidence existed, the complaint alleges. Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin said Texas law requires new evidence is required under a Texas statute that requires “good and sufficient cause” to raise bond. Franklin is just one of several judges who use these practices, he said.

“I think the issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously now,” he said. “Some judges have followed the rules of due process better than others, and I think that’s also coming to light.”

Let’s name names and get it all on the record. It was clear prior to the 2018 election that the Republicans judges (with one honorable exception) were the main impediment to bail reform in the misdemeanor courts. All of the felony court judges are Democrats, and so far only two of them (Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren) have petitioned to join the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. That means that all of the others are at least potentially part of the problem. It’s not too late for any of them to get on the right side of things, but that time will soon come, and it’s going to be on us Democratic primary voters to clean up whatever mess is left. I very much hope that our Democratic judges decide that they want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but we need to be prepared to deal with the ones that make a bad choice. Judge Franklin was unopposed in March, and has no Republican opponent. She can’t get a pass like that again.

Finally, for those who show up in the comments here with links to Facebook posts about people who get released on PR bond and then do something horrible: This is a coward’s argument. If you honestly believe that everyone who gets arrested for anything should be kept in jail until they get acquitted by a jury, have the guts to say so. Or if you believe that only people that you personally don’t find to be scary can get released, or if you believe that everyone should have to pay bail of some large minimum amount, say so. Because what you are arguing for, whether you are able to admit it or not, is for lots of people to be kept in jail before they are ever found guilty of anything. If you can’t admit what you’re actually arguing for, then maybe you should keep that argument to yourself.

Fifth Circuit hears arguments on vote by mail case

One more try before it’s too late to make a difference for this year.

The Texas Democratic Party’s lawyer argued today before a federal appeals court that the state is unlawfully discriminating against the majority of the voting-age population by requiring only those under the age of 65 to have an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot.

It’s one of several last-minute battles playing out in the months leading up to the 2020 election, which is expected to yield historic turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

[…]

The Democrats’ federal case is expected to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the clock is ticking. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Texas is October 23, leaving just about seven weeks for the appellate court and high court to rule on it.

At Monday’s hearing, Chad Dunn, representing the Texas Democratic Party, told the court that the Texas mail-in voting law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote can’t be “denied or abridged” on account of age.

Dunn said previous elections have shown that voters will likely be waiting in long lines in November.

“We’re asking voters — certain ones of them get excused from that endurance test and others, based purely on their age, are to suffer through it,” Dunn said. “The fact of the matter is that when individuals’ characteristics are used by the government to divvy up who gets to vote, those are prohibited” by the Constitution.

The state, represented by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, argued that Supreme Court precedent exists to show that the Texas law does not violate the 26th Amendment.

“It does not deny or abridge the right to vote to make voting more available to some groups as opposed to others,” Hawkins said. “To abridge the right to vote does not mean giving other groups more options; it means taking away something from a certain group.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, the other vote by mail-related lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss. We should get a ruling of some kind in this lawsuit before the deadline to mail out overseas ballots, which is September 18. I have no idea if there’s time for any action on the other one.

This Statesman story from earlier in the day on Monday has some more background info on the case.

Monday’s arguments will focus on the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, saying the right to vote cannot be denied or restricted “by any State on account of age” for those 18 and older.

Just as other constitutional amendments ensure that voters cannot be treated differently based on race or gender, the 26th Amendment uses identical language to extend voting protections based on age, said Chad Dunn, who will argue Monday on behalf of Democrats before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am confident that we will ultimately ensure that everybody, regardless of age, has the right to vote by mail,” Dunn told the American-Statesman.

[…]

The age question has drawn the interest of at least one influential observer: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

When Texas Democrats raised the issue at the high court this summer, the nine justices declined to accept the case. Sotomayor was the only one to discuss the reason.

The Democrats’ challenge, she wrote in late June, “raised weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment.”

However, justices balked at addressing those questions for the first time at the high court, and Sotomayor urged the 5th Circuit Court to make a speedy decision in the matter.

Many others hope for a quick resolution as well. In Texas, voting for the November election begins in less than seven weeks.

[…]

The case before the 5th Circuit Court will determine the fate of a May order by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who required mail-in ballots to be sent to any registered Texas voter who requested one while “pandemic circumstances” continue.

“One’s right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature. Citizens should have the option to choose voting by letter carrier versus voting with disease carriers,” Biery wrote.

Paxton appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court responded by blocking enforcement of Biery’s order until the appeal can be decided.

That ruling by a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit was notable for its harsh criticism of Biery for wading into election decisions that belong to “politically accountable officials,” not judges.

“The spread of the virus has not given unelected federal judges a roving commission to rewrite state election codes,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

A different three-judge panel, however, will hear Monday’s oral arguments and decide whether the 26th Amendment bars Texas from denying mail-in voting to those under age 65. Two of the judges on the new panel were appointed by Democratic presidents — Carolyn Dineen King and Carl Stewart — while the panel’s third member, Leslie Southwick, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

A ruling won’t come Monday, but with the election looming, the appeals court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule.

The Texas Democratic Party’s challenge has drawn considerable interest, with additional legal briefs filed by liberal and conservative public interest groups, health professionals, advocates for the disabled, other states and local political parties.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir also submitted a brief with election officials from Harris, Cameron and Fort Bend counties that begged the 5th Circuit Court to accept the 26th Amendment arguments and expand mail-in voting.

“Unless access to vote by mail is increased significantly, providing a safe election will be impossible because of the expected high volume of in-person voters this presidential year,” their brief said.

On the one hand, almost 30 doctors and nurses, including epidemiologists and front-line health workers, told the court that it is essential to reduce the number of people gathering on Election Day to protect voters, poll workers and the community from COVID-19, while the Texas NAACP argued that the state’s Republican leaders adopted a needlessly restrictive interpretation of mail-in voting law to impose a severe and unacceptable burden on the right to vote.

On the other hand, a brief from conservative legal interest groups argued that Biery improperly interfered with the state’s authority to regulate the time, place and manner of elections in favor of widespread mail-in voting, which should be allowed in only limited circumstances because it is more vulnerable to fraud than traditional voting.

Originally, there were two lawsuits, one filed by the TDP that argued COVID vulnerability was sufficient to be considered a “disability” and allow anyone who claimed that to get a mail ballot, and one filed by other groups that argued the existing limit of vote by mail to those 65 and over (plus those who claim a disability, which as we know was not clearly defined and is being argued about in other venues) violates the 26th Amendment, which is the one that lowered the voting age to 18. Both were combined into this lawsuit, and as you can see the 26th Amendment claim is the main thrust from the plaintiffs. We’ll see what we get.

And now the state has sued to stop the Clerk’s mail ballot application program

Such a busy day in court.

Acting at the request of the secretary of state, the Texas attorney general on Monday sued Harris County after it refused to drop plans to send applications for mail-in ballots for the November general election to more than 2 million registered voters.

Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking a state district court to bar Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins from proactively providing the applications to every registered voter in the county, alleging Hollins does not have the authority under state law to carry out the plan.

[…]

There is no state law that specifically prohibits election officials from sending out mail-in ballot applications to all voters. Instead, Paxton argues that county clerks are only “expressly empowered” by the Texas Election Code to send out applications to voters who request them, “but there is no statute empowering County Clerks to send applications to vote by mail to voters who have not requested such an application.”

“And Hollins’s plan to send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter, regardless of whether the application was requested or whether the recipient is qualified to vote a mail ballot, is not an exercise of power that is necessarily implied to perform his duties,” Paxton wrote.

The legal action was sought by the secretary of state’s office, which last week demanded the county retract its plan by Monday at noon. The secretary of state’s office has advised counties seeking to proactively send out applications to limit those mailings to voters who are 65 and older — the only predetermined qualification for a mail-in ballot in Texas — to avoid confusion about eligibility.

The secretary of state’s office claimed that Harris County’s endeavor would amount to “abuse of voters’ rights,” raising the prospect that sending applications to all voters, including those who do not qualify, may cause confusion among voters and “impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so” by “clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure” with applications from voters who do not qualify.

But Harris County refused to back down from its plan, with Hollins noting that the county’s mailing would also include “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail.” The county has also previously indicated it is planning to purchase more mail-sorting equipment and hire hundreds of temporary workers who will focuse on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots.

“They have taken the position that somehow sending the form that would make it easier for someone to vote is somehow impeding a person’s ability to vote,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “The lack of logic in that assertion is beyond me.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the AG’s filing is here. There are two main differences between this action and the Hotze filing. One is that this is a lawsuit filed in Harris County district court, for which the AG will seek a temporary restraining order, while the Hotze action is a writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court. The other is that this one seems to make a narrower claim about the law in question, which is that the Lege didn’t give the Clerk this power and so the Clerk does not have it. It’s not as problematic or nonsensical as the Hotze argument, but it still fails my “plain reading” test and still invites the question of why anyone else would be empowered to do this if the Clerk is forbidden. You can read the other post, I’m not going to repeat myself. I will also confess that I didn’t read the AG’s filing, mostly because it was later in the day when this story hit and I was tired. I expect it’s less ridiculous than the Hotze filing, but that is a very low bar to clear. As of this moment, I have no idea what the schedule for this may be, but for obvious reasons there should be some action quickly. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Hotze and the Harris County GOP try to stop the Clerk from sending out mail ballot applications

It’s mandamus time! Again.

The Harris County Republican Party on Monday joined a lawsuit asking the Texas Supreme Court to halt the county clerk’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

The lawsuit accuses County Clerk Christopher Hollins of ignoring the court’s June ruling on mail ballots and misreading the Texas Election Code.

“Harris County has a rogue clerk who is abusing the application to vote by mail process and compromising the integrity of elections in Harris County,” the suit states. The other plaintiffs in are conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, and Sharon Hemphill, a Republican running for judge in the 80th Judicial District Court.

[…]

The suit argues that the Election Code states residents must request a mail ballot application, and that absentee voting in Texas is reserved for a small group of voters. Since the code does not specifically permit a county clerk or elections administrator to send mail ballot applications to residents who do not request them, the suit claims this practice is illegal.

Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that nothing in the Texas Election Code prohibits Harris County from mailing applications to whomever the clerk chooses.

The plaintiffs also claim Hollins disregarded the Supreme Court’s June ruling, which held that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone did not qualify voters for a “disability,” one of three conditions that permit a resident to vote by mail in Texas.

Hollins and the Harris County Attorney’s Office have interpreted the ruling to mean that fear of the virus can constitute one of several factors to meet the disability standard. Since the county clerk has no duty to challenge mail ballot applications, this effectively leaves voters to decide for themselves where they qualify.

See here and here for the background. This mandamus makes two arguments, both of which seem incredibly thin to me. One is a rehash of the state Supreme Court opinion in the earlier lawsuit by the TDP to expand vote by mail, in which SCOTX agreed with the state that “lack of immunity to COVID-19” did not qualify as a “disability” under the law that defined vote by mail eligibility. That opinion also concluded that it was up to the voter to determine whether or not they met the definition of “disability” under this law, and that local election administrators have “no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”. Their claim is that this means that it’s illegal to send people who may not qualify for a mail ballot an application for a mail ballot, which sure looks to me like an enormous leap. I can certainly imagine SCOTX taking an opportunity to clarify their earlier ruling, but I would hope they’d prefer to do it after a case has been argued and facts established by a lower court.

The other argument is an even bigger head-scratcher. Allow me to quote:

III. State Law Requires Voters to Request an Application to Vote by Mail

The Texas Election Code § 84.012 states: CLERK TO MAIL APPLICATION FORM ON REQUEST. The early voting clerk shall mail without charge an appropriate official application form for an early voting ballot to each applicant requesting the clerk to send the applicant an application form.

Limitations on voting by mail and fraud related to the voting by mail process has been the subject of “intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country.” In re State, 602 S.W.3d 549, 550 (Tex. 2020). This Court has not taken “a side in that debate,” and has left the decisions regarding voting by mail “to legislators and others.” Id.

The issue before this Court is not whether the application process for voting by mail is a better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. This Court’s “authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent.” Id.

Here’s the law in question. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I am capable of reading an English-language sentence and inferring its meaning. I say the plain meaning of this text is that the intent of the Legislature was to mandate that County Clerks send a mail ballot application to anyone who requests one. The purpose of this law is to remove any discretion from the Clerk’s procedure – in other words, to forbid a Clerk from deciding not to send someone a mail ballot application because the Clerk thinks that person is ineligible or whatever else. I’m hard-pressed to see how this could be interpreted any other way.

The law, as written, does not specify that the Clerk may not send an application to anyone who did not specifically ask for one. Nor does it say that they Clerk may only send an application to those who do. It just says that if a Clerk gets a request for a mail ballot application, the Clerk must send the mail ballot application. What else would it mean?

The relators elaborate on their argument a couple of paragraphs later, and it’s almost as if they’re trying to make my argument:

A. The plain language of Texas Election Code § 84.012 prohibits Respondent from sending applications to all registered voters.

Texas statutes are to be interpreted based on their plain language. See Leland v. Brandal, 257 S.W.3d 204, 206 (Tex. 2008). The Court presumes the Legislature included each word for a purpose and that words not included were purposefully omitted. In re M.N., 262 S.W.3d 799, 802 (Tex. 2008). It also presumes the Legislature understood and followed the rules of English grammar. Tex. Gov’t Code § 311.011; See also Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 140 (2012) (describing the presumption as “unshakeable”).

[…]

The plain language of the statute makes it clear that the clerk shall mail the appropriate official application form for early voting only to “applicant[s] requesting the clerk to send the application form.” Id. The Texas Election Code § 84.012 does not allow for the clerk to send applications to all registered voters.

The Legislature’s refusal to add such language is consistent with the Legislature’s desire to curtail fraud associated with voting by mail. If the Legislature had wanted to require the clerk to send the application to vote early to all registered voters, they could have done so. Additionally, if they wanted the clerk to have this option, they could have provided it in the language of the statute. Instead, the Legislature limited the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it.

Emphasis in the original. Note how the word “only” in the penultimate paragraph is not included in the quote from the law. That’s because that word was not included in the law. Like I said, it’s almost as if they agree with me.

I would also point out that if the Legislature really did intend to “limit the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it”, then campaigns and political parties have been violating this law with impunity for decades. I myself would have violated it in 2018 when I participated in HCDP phone banks to remind voters that the HCDP had already sent mail ballot applications to complete them and mail them in. Remember how the TDP recently boasted about sending out zillions of mail ballot applications to voters this year? Or for that matter how County Clerk Hollins sent mail ballot applications to all registered voters 65 and over for the primary runoffs? No one filed any mandamuses over those actions. That’s because the law does not forbid them. Capische?

Now again, the relators here are trying to wedge the door open to allow SCOTX to revisit its opinion from that earlier suit and clarify that no, actually, only people who are Legitimately Disabled (whatever that means) can get mail ballots. That would mean not only making up a new law on the spot but also defining how to enforce it, and while I would not put it past the Supreme Court to try and pull such a stunt, it would be a big goddamn mess if they did so. I don’t think they have it in them, but we’ll see.

One more thing: Do go and give this mandamus a scan – the link from above is to a Quorum Report post, and the mandamus filing is there as a downloadable PDF. Look at how much of the language in this filing is about buzzwords and slogans – fraud! rogue! more fraud! – and how little refers to actual law and precedent. Now compare it to the mandamus writ in the attempt to knock Libertarian candidates off the ballot, which whatever you may think of it is sober, to the point, and full of citations. Maybe it’s just me, but the former comes off as desperate, while the latter has some faith in its arguments. Campos has more.

A very simple projection of the November vote

In my earlier post about the current state of voter registrations, I noted that you could see the county-by-county totals in the contest details for the Senate runoff. What that also means is that if you have current (till now, anyway) voter registration totals, you can do a comparison across the counties of where voter registration totals have gone up the most, and how the vote has shifted in recent elections. In doing so, you can come up with a simple way to project what the 2020 vote might look like.

So, naturally, I did that. Let me walk you through the steps.

First, I used the 2020 runoff results data to get current registration totals per county. I put that into a spreadsheet with county-by-county results from the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections and the 2018 Senate election to calculate total voter registration changes from each year to 2020. I then sorted by net change since 2012, and grouped the 254 counties into three buckets: Counties that had a net increase of at least 10,000 voters since 2012, counties that had a net increase of less than 10,000 voters since 2012, and counties that have lost voters since 2012. From there, I looked at the top race for each year.

First, here are the 2012 big gain counties. There were 33 of these counties, with a net gain of +2,488,260 registered voters as of July 2020.


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

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

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

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012    10,442,191     6,157,687     59.0%
2016    11,760,590     7,029,306     59.8%
2018    12,403,704     6,662,143     53.7%
2020    12,930,451     

The shift in voting behavior here is obvious. Hillary Clinton did much better in the larger, growing counties in 2016 than Barack Obama had done in 2012, and Beto O’Rourke turbo-charged that pattern. I have made this point before, but it really bears repeating: In these growing counties, Ted Cruz did literally a million votes worse than Mitt Romney did. And please note, these aren’t just the big urban counties – there are only seven such counties, after all – nor are they all Democratic. This list contains such heavily Republican places as Montgomery, Comal, Parker, Smith, Lubbock, Ector, Midland, Randall, Ellis, Rockwall, and Kaufman. The thing to keep in mind is that while Beto still lost by a lot in those counties, he lost by less in them than Hillary Clinton did, and a lot less than Obama did. Beto uniformly received more votes in those counties than Clinton did, and Cruz received fewer than Trump and Romney.

Here’s where we do the projection part. Let’s assume that in 2020 these counties have 59.8% turnout at 2018 partisan percentages, which is to say Biden wins the two-party vote 54.3% to 45.7% for Trump. At 59.8% turnout there would be 7,732,410 voters, which gives us this result:


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

In other words, Biden gains 100K votes over what Beto did in 2018. If you’re now thinking “but Beto lost by 200K”, hold that thought.

Now let’s look at the 2012 small gain counties, the ones that gained anywhere from eight voters to 9,635 voters from 2012. There are a lot of these, 148 counties in all, but because their gains were modest the total change is +243,093 RVs in 2020. Here’s how those election results looked:


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

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

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

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012     2,686,872     1,551,613     57.7%
2016     2,829,110     1,653,858     58.5%
2018     2,884,466     1,466,446     50.8%
2020     2,929,965     

Obviously, very red. Beto carried a grand total of ten of these 148 counties: Starr, Willacy, Reeves, Jim Wells, Zapata, Val Verde, Kleberg, La Salle, Dimmit, and Jim Hogg. This is a lot of rural turf, and as we can see Trump did better here than Romney did, both in terms of percentage and net margin. Ted Cruz was a tiny bit behind Romney on margin, but did slightly better in percentage. The overall decline in turnout held Cruz back.

Once again, we project. Assume 58.5% turnout at 2018 partisan percentages. That gives us 1,714,030 voters for the following result:


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

Trump winds up with the same margin as he did in 2016, as the 2018 partisan mix helps Biden not fall farther behind. Trump is now in the lead by about 150K votes.

Finally, the counties that have had a net loss of registered voters since 2012. There were 73 such counties, and a net -17,793 RVs in 2020.


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

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

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

Year  Total voters   Total votes   Turnout
==========================================
2012       517,163       284,551     55.0%
2016       511,387       286,062     55.9%
2018       505,087       243,066     48.1%
2020       499,370    

Again, mostly rural and again pretty red. The counties that Beto won were Culberson, Presidio, Jefferson (easily the biggest county in this group; Beto was just over 50% here, as Clinton had been, while Obama was just under 50%), Zavala, Duval, Brooks, and Frio.

Assume 55.9% turnout at 2018 partisan percentages, and for 277,148 voters we get:


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

Again, basically what Trump did in 2016. Add it all up, and the result is:


Trump    5,012,802   Biden    4,770,351
Trump       51.24%   Biden       48.76%

That’s actually quite close to the Economist projection for Texas. If you’re now thinking “wait, you walked me through all these numbers to tell me that Trump’s gonna win Texas, why did we bother?”, let me remind you of the assumptions we made in making this projection:

1. Turnout levels would be equal to the 2016 election, while the partisan splits would be the same as 2018. There’s no reason why turnout can’t be higher in 2020 than it was in 2016, and there’s also no reason why the Democratic growth in those top 33 counties can’t continue apace.

2. Implicit in all this is that turnout in each individual county within their given bucket is the same. That’s obviously not how it works in real life, and it’s why GOTV efforts are so critical. If you recall my post about Harris County’s plans to make voting easier this November, County Clerk Chris Hollins suggests we could see up to 1.7 million votes cast here. That’s 360K more voters than there were in 2016, and 500K more than in 2018. It’s over 70% turnout in Harris County at current registration numbers. Had Beto had that level of turnout, at the same partisan percentages, he’d have netted an additional 85K votes in Harris. Obviously, other counties can and will try to boost turnout as well, and Republicans are going to vote in higher numbers, too. My point is, the potential is there for a lot more votes, in particular a lot more Democratic votes, to be cast.

Remember, this is all intended as a very simple projection of the vote. Lots of things that I haven’t taken into account can affect what happens. All this should give you some confidence in the polling results for Texas, and it should remind you of where the work needs to be done, and what the path to victory is.

A word about mail ballot drop boxes

I learned something in this story.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re trending in the right direction, but…

Still a ways to go.

The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the Houston area have improved significantly since July, but the pandemic remains a serious threat here.

The Houston region added 1,957 cases on Saturday, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, bringing the total to 104,650.

Texas as a whole added 4,988 cases and added 138 deaths. The Chronicle has tallied a total of 12,664 virus deaths in the state, though the true figure is likely higher.

The positive test rate fell slightly, from 12.3 percent to 12.2 percent. A troubling sign, however, was a jump in the state’s rolling average of new cases, from 4,997 to 5,369.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations declined for the 11th straight day, to 4,273.

I last posted about this a few days ago, so things aren’t that much different. This story doesn’t have any charts in it, but you can go to Ready Harris and see what they have. (There’s a large blip in the Harris-not-Houston numbers for the past two days, which I’m going to guess is an artifact of test results coming in as a cluster.) As with San Antonio and Dallas and the state as a whole, the numbers are down from the peak but still well above where they were before they began that massive increase in late June. The thing that has made the difference is wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding indoor crowds. If we can keep this up, we can get to a point where maybe having kids back in school doesn’t seem like a crazy idea. It’s just that the last time we thought we were making progress, we declared victory and totally let our guard down. Can we please not do that this time? Thanks.

Giving a motion its proper due

Best mugshot ever

As you know, Ken Paxton really really wants to get his securities fraud case moved back to what he assumes are the warm and friendly confines of Collin County. The case was originally moved out of Collin County on the grounds that it would be hard to get a sufficiently impartial jury there, and so it has been in Harris County for the last million years, give or take a century. Then it looked like Paxton had scored a win, when Harris County Criminal Court Judge Robert Johnson ruled in favor of a Paxton motion to send the case back to Collin County, while also recusing himself from the case due to a potential conflict of interest, as the Attorney General’s office is representing the Harris County Criminal District Court judges in the bail practices lawsuit, for which they are named defendants. Johnson stepped down and fellow jurist Jason Luong was put on the case while Johnson’s ruling to move the case back to Collin County was appealed by prosecutors.

This presented a problem for Paxton, because prosecutors could ask Judge Luong to reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling, and thus possibly rule instead to keep the case in Harris County. So, Team Paxton moved to have Judge Luong recused from the case (he declined to recuse himself) on the grounds that the same potential conflict of interest that Judge Johnson cited in his own recusal would apply to Judge Luong as well. The prosecutors objected, on the grounds that there really isn’t a conflict of interest here, in part because the AG’s office is representing the Criminal District Court judges as an entity not as individuals – they are being sued in their official capacity, not as private citizens – and also because Paxton himself is not involved in the bail litigation. Last Friday, Administrative Judge Susan Brown ruled for the prosecutors, denying Paxton’s motion to remove Judge Luong from the case, and thus allowing Luong to revisit Johnson’s ruling to move it.

I assume this ruling can and will be appealed, but in the meantime, Team Paxton has filed a motion asking Judge Brown to reconsider her ruling. This is the legal strategy of saying “Are you sure you meant to rule that way? Here, let me give you the same set of facts and arguments as before but maybe emphasize them a little differently, and you’ll see it my way this time, right?” This means that the prosecutors have to respond to this motion, and so they did, with the tone of voice and general tenor one might expect in such a circumstance. When you start with a quote from the movie Dumb and Dumber and conclude with the canonical definition of the word “chutzpah”, it’s safe to say you feel confident in your position. In between, the prosecutors remind everyone that both Paxton and his lawyer have stated that 1) the AG’s office has been “working to remove [Paxton] from ‘active participation in matters in which a conflict may exist’” and 2) “[Judge Johnson] did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Now, assuming that Judge Luong does stay on the case so that he can rule on the motion to reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling to send the case back to Collin County (*), and assuming that he rules that Judge Johnson erred in his ruling and that the case should stay here, will the question of Judge Luong needing to be recused come up again? Probably, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime, enjoy this little exercise in the fine legal art of saying “You’ve got to be kidding me” as only lawyers can.

(*) It’s quite standard for a new judge to revisit consequential rulings made by a previous judge on a case. That’s why having Judge Luong reconsider Judge Johnson’s ruling is not in the same category as asking Judge Brown to reconsider her own ruling.

NBA agrees to offer its arenas as voting centers

Nice.

“What was the plan?” was always the wrong question to ask of striking NBA players; what they wanted was to not play basketball, and they got it. But they used that time not playing to talk, to think and to make their voices heard.

But the players did get a significant commitment from their bosses: turning as many NBA arenas as possible into voting sites for November.

The league and union announced Friday that the playoffs will resume Saturday. That announcement included a concrete promise from the league. Every team-owned arena will turn into a polling place for the November election in locations where that’s still legally possible in order for voters to have a large, COVID-safe place to vote in person.

Three teams had already committed to this earlier in the summer — Bucks, Pistons and Hawks — and the Rockets made the announcement on Thursday.

Chris Paul, the Thunder point guard and longtime union president, gave an emotional interview to bubble media after the announcement.

“In 15 years in the league, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Paul said. “Everyone expects us to go out and play. I get it. But we needed some time,” he said, adding that he had spoken to Jacob Blake’s father.

We knew about the Toyota Center. I had not been aware of the other three arenas, which was apparently something that happened in early July. Here’s some more details about what this announcement means:

On Friday, the NBA and NBPA announced a three-point plan to promote social justice and racial equality, which includes converting NBA arenas into voting centers for the 2020 presidential election. The NBA playoffs will resume on Saturday in Orlando.

“1. The NBA and its players have agreed to immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.

2. In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local election officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.

3. The league will work with the players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

In theory, that could mean voting centers in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona in addition the four that are already signed on. Maybe Dallas and San Antonio will join in as well. How many of these actually happen, and what kind of response the players will have if they feel the effort fell short for whatever the reason, remains to be seen. But in terms of direct action resulting from the wildcat strike the players engineered this past week, it’s pretty impressive. Well done.

(A more recent article than the NPR story I linked above suggests some other NBA teams, as well as teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB, are taking similar action to allow their stadia to be used for voting. Not clear to me what relation these two efforts have. For sure, there are plenty of stadia, including hundreds of college stadia and arenas, that could also be used in this capacity, in all 50 states. It would be nice to say we’re just limited by our imagination, but of course we are very much limited by the ferocious opposition to this idea that those who don’t want to make voting easy and convenient would bring. What the NBA players have done is a great start. There’s a lot more that could and should be done.)

SOS objects to Hollins’ mail ballot application plan

I suppose this was inevitable.

In a letter dated Aug. 27, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state, told Harris County to “immediately halt” its plans to send every registered voter in the county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election. Ingram demanded the county drop its plan by Monday to avoid legal action by the Texas attorney general.

Sending out the applications “would be contrary to our office’s guidance on this issue and an abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code Section 31.005,” Ingram wrote, citing a provision of state law that gives the secretary of state’s office power to take such action to “protect the voting rights” of Texans from “abuse” by local officials responsible for administering elections.

[…]

“Providing more information and resources to voters is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in response to the state’s letter. “We have already responded to the Secretary of State’s Office offering to discuss the matter with them.”

[…]

The secretary of state’s office has advised counties seeking to proactively send out applications to limit those mailings to voters who are 65 and older to avoid confusion about eligibility. But there appears to be no state law that specifically prohibits sending out applications to all voters.

On Friday, Harris said the county’s mailing would also include “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” While the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus alone doesn’t qualify a voter for a mail-in ballot based on disability, a voter can consider it along with their medical history to decide if they meet the requirement. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without personal assistance or the “likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Voters will, of course, make their own decisions about if they qualify to vote by mail,” Hollins said.

In his letter, Ingram raises the prospect that sending applications to all voters, including those who do not qualify, may cause confusion among voters and “impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so” by “clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure” with applications from voters who do not qualify.

In applying for a mail-in ballot, voters must check off which of the state’s eligibility criteria they meet. (The secretary of state allows any voter to request an application for a mail-in ballot through its online portal without asking whether the voter meets the eligibility requirements.)

See here for the background. As the Chron story notes, Ingram’s plan is to get Ken Paxton involved if Hollins doesn’t back down by Monday. The thing is, though, as both stories note, there’s no actual law that says what Hollins did was illegal. Remember what the State Supreme Court opinion said when the original TDP lawsuit that made the claim that the pandemic itself was a condition that qualified voters for the disability provision in the mail ballot law:

We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

If “the decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s”, and “election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”, then what exactly is the problem with an election official giving each voter the explicit opportunity to make that decision for themselves? If you think that the two sentences that wrap around the ones I quoted from make the whole paragraph somewhat contradictory, I understand. Perhaps the lawsuit Paxton is no doubt itching to file would clear that up. The point is, this is not at all clear as the law now stands.

I’ll be honest, it will be all right by me if Hollins does back down, and instead limit himself to sending mail ballot applications to everyone 65 and older, and everyone who applied for a mail ballot in either the March primary or the July runoff. I do think that his effort here has the chance to confuse some folks, and the plethora of voting locations as extended early voting hours goes a long way toward mitigating any concerns about coronavirus risk for in person voting. That said, Hollins has taken a strong stand for making it as easy and convenient to vote as possible for everyone, and it’s shocking how bold that actually is. How is it that such a stand represents so powerful a departure from the way things had always been done? I think from a purely strategic viewpoint, Hollins can walk this back, having made his point and laying down a marker for the next Democratic Legislature in Texas. If he refuses to back down from this very honorable and principled position, everything will be immediately cranked up to 11, and I fear that the distraction will do more harm than good. But whatever Hollins does choose to do next, he has shown us what voting in Harris County, and all of Texas, should look like. Let’s not forget that.

Republicans go to Supreme Court to remove Libertarian candidates

If at first you don’t succeed, make up a new statutory deadline that you claim is the real date that matters.

About a week after Texas Democrats took several Green Party candidates to court and had them knocked off the ballot for failing to pay candidate filing fees, state and national Republicans are taking a similar case to the state’s highest civil court.

The Third Court of Appeals ruled against three Green Party candidates, but in the case of the Libertarians, the court dismissed the case as moot, saying it was no longer timely because the Aug. 21 deadline to declare a candidate ineligible had passed. The Republicans’ petition was filed Aug. 21.

This latest lawsuit filed by the Republicans names 40 Libertarian candidates, including two candidates for Texas Supreme Court, three for Texas Senate, 10 for Texas House and 25 for Congress.

The high court doesn’t have much time to take action: Friday was the deadline for the Secretary of State to certify candidates for the ballot.

“It’s a last-ditch effort on their part,” said Libertarian Party of Texas Chair Whitney Bilyeu. “They’re clearly desperate to do everything they can to remove voter choice at the polls to continue to have a one-party state here in Texas.”

The Libertarians say their candidates chose not to pay the fee for various reasons: some were taking a personal stand against a law they believe to be unconstitutional, some filed with the Secretary of State during a window of time when a judge had temporarily blocked the law, and others simply did not have the funds.

The filing fees in Texas are $3,125 for the U.S. House, $1,250 for Texas Senate and $750 for Texas House. Fifty-three of 70 Libertarian candidates paid theirs, state data shows.

Lawyers for the Republicans wrote that “timing is of the utmost importance” because “each day closer to September 19 — the date ballots are mailed — makes relief less practical.”

[…]

At the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas House Republican Caucus PAC and National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as 27 of their candidates and the GOP parties in Harris, Travis and Tarrant counties, are arguing that while the deadline to challenge eligibility may have passed, the deadline to challenge a candidates’ application is Sept. 18, the day before any mail-in ballots are sent out.

See here for the background. Patrick Svitek has a copy of the writ of mandamus, and honestly the “Relief Requested” section of the document, starting on page 18, explains why this is different in a fairly clear manner:

When a candidate fails to submit the required filing fee, there is confusion whether the appropriate challenge is to the application, under Chapter 141 or the eligibility under Chapter 145. The statute is less than crystal clear on this point, providing that “To be eligible to be placed on the ballot for the general election . . . a candidate must” pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu of a filing fee. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041(a) (emph. added). At the same time, Chapter 141 provides that a challenge under this section, to provide the application, is not “a determination of a candidate’s eligibility.” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.034(b).

Adding to the confusion, courts and parties have intermingled these two challenges. See In re Davis. No. 03-20-00414-CV, 2020 Tex. App. Lexis 6663 (Tex. App.—Austin, Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding) (granting mandamus relief challenging a minor candidate’s eligibility under Chapter 145 based on a candidate’s failure to pay the required filing fee).

Candidly, in the tight window to seek mandamus relief, many of the Relators fell in the same trap last week when they challenged certain Libertarian candidates eligibility under Chapter 145. The Third Court of Appeals denied that relief, finding it untimely.

But, as an analysis of the statutory scheme and case law bear out, a challenge to a candidate’s failure to submit the application with the required filing fee is a challenge arising under Chapter 141.

This distinction is important because challenges to application— versus eligibility—have different timing requirements. The Third Court of Appeals concluded that a challenge to eligibility must be completed by the 74th day preceding the election. On the other hand, a party can challenge a candidate’s application, including the failure to pay the filing fee “the day before any ballot to be voted early by mail is mailed . . .” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.032. That date is September 18.

Relators institute this new original proceeding under Texas Election Code Section 273.061, challenging the candidates’ ability to appear on the general election ballot for failure to submit the required filing fee under Chapter 141. As this is a new action, requesting new relief, this is an appropriate original jurisdiction proceeding before this Court. In this action, Relators ask the Court to compel the Libertarian Party of Texas and its Chair to comply with their statutory duty to reject these applications and to notify the Secretary of State of the rejection. If the Secretary of State is made aware of the rejection, it can take appropriate corrective action.

There is no question of timeliness in this challenge, as it can occur at any time prior to September 18. Practically, though, after August 28, the Secretary of State will begin to make arrangements to print and distribute ballots. Thus, timing is of the utmost importance. Should this Court issue relief, the Secretary of State can take corrective action through early September. However, each day closer to September 19—the date ballots are mailed—makes relief less practical.

Basically, what this claims is that the challenge that the Third Court rejected was made under the wrong law, given the timing. This challenge is made under a different law, where the timing is not an issue, at least not yet. Will it fly? I have no idea, but points for effort.

Two other items of interest here. One is that the long list of relators (again, that’s what you call a plaintiff in a case like this) here includes multiple Republican candidates, presumably all of whom have a Libertarian opponent. You may recall from the previous challenge that the absence of Republican candidates in affected races raised the question of standing. The Third Court did not address that issue because they ruled that the motion was moot, but the Supreme Court would surely have to address it in any race where the candidate was not among the relators. Two, the story says that 53 of 70 Libertarian candidates did in fact pay the filing fee, but the Republicans named 40 of them in this writ and claimed none of them paid the fee. Both of these facts can’t be true, so we’ll see what the court says. My guess is we’ll get an answer in short order.

You’ll be able to vote at Toyota Center this fall

Nice.

Toyota Center will serve as a voting center for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, the Rockets and the Harris County Clerk office announced on Thursday.

Toyota Center will be open to any registered voter in Harris County from Oct. 13 to 30 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“On behalf of the Houston Rockets, and Toyota Center, we are honored to help serve our community by providing a safe and convenient location for Harris County voters for the upcoming Presidential election,” Doug Hall, General Manager & Senior Vice President of Toyota Center said. “Voting is an extremely important right which many have fought hard for throughout the years and we want to thank the Harris County Clerk office for allowing the Rockets and Toyota Center to offer support.”

The Rockets and Houston First will provide free parking at Toyota Center throughout the voting period.

The Rockets have also partnered with I am a voter. (iamavoter.com), a nonpartisan movement that works to enhance awareness and participation in the voting process. Fans may text ROCKETS to 26797 to confirm their voter registration status.

“Our elections this November will be historic – not only because we are electing the President of the United States, but also because we must meet the challenge as a community to ensure that every Harris County voter can cast their vote safely,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said. “I’m thrilled that Toyota Center, home to our beloved Houston Rockets, will be a voting center during the Early Voting Period and on Election Day.”

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about this. Toyota Center joins NRG Arena and many other places. Unlike the other innovations being put forth for this year, this one may not be repeatable, as Toyota Center (and NRG Arena) are generally quite busy with multiple events that draw large crowds. Then again, one could argue that’s exactly the kind of place where you’d want to put a voting center, for maximal convenience. If there’s a practical way to do it in the future, then by all means let’s do so.

The bullet we dodged

We can exhale now.

Following days of warnings and calls to take Laura seriously, Houston and Harris County awoke to a typical late August day Thursday, virtually unscathed by the category 4 hurricane’s overnight landfall in western Louisiana.

The city and county saw occasional wind gusts of about 20 miles per hour but did not experience any of Hurricane Laura’s more damaging effects, officials said.

The National Weather Service said it had no reports of storm damage in Houston as of 6:30 a.m. The only noticeable effect was the occasional wind, according to Janice Maldonado, a meteorologist with the agency.

Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, which activated to maximum readiness in advance of the storm, began sending workers home overnight as the storm passed.

“From my understanding, Houston was pretty much spared,” said Cory Stottlemyer, spokesman for the agency.

Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, said 90 miles made all the difference between unscathed Houston and hard-hit southwest Louisiana.

“We really dodged a bullet,” he said.

Yesterday was spent in a confusing melange of heavy relief and pervasive survivor’s guilt. We escaped completely unscathed, while much of Louisiana got leveled by the winds. It’s a complex set of feelings, but this is not the first time we’ve had them around here. It’s just a bit more intense this time, three years after Harvey and with a full appreciation of what a monster Laura was and how utterly devastating it would have been to us if it had tracked farther west. If you want to know what that all looked like, see here and here. When you’re done, go find some ways to help, and act accordingly.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

Houston officials and public health experts are expressing concern that Tropical Storm Laura could amplify the spread of COVID-19 by displacing residents to public shelters or residences outside the area, increasing opportunities for transmission.

With that scenario in mind, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday encouraged Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 before the storm makes landfall. Forecasters have predicted it will come ashore late Wednesday or early Thursday, though the path remained uncertain by Monday evening.

Officials from Harris County and the American Red Cross began preparing for potential shelter needs months ago, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday. At Red Cross shelters, officials will provide face coverings, conduct health screenings and follow federal social distancing guidance, the organization announced in a news release. It also will operate more shelters with a reduced capacity in each.

“This is not a situation where we would have the same kind of shelters we’re used to, where it’s completely open space and no division between folks,” Hidalgo said.

Turner, who urged people to get tested on Monday or Tuesday, tweeted, “You need to know your status for yourself, family members and friends.”

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while disaster officials may come up with creative solutions to help contain the spread of COVID, public shelters would be “a nightmare even under the best circumstances.”

The effect may be especially pronounced, Hotez said, because those most likely to seek shelter in a public setting come from low-income communities where people are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

It also would be difficult for contact tracers to follow the spread of the virus during an evacuation, he said.

“If you think about it, without a vaccine, what do we have? We have masks, we have contact tracing and social distancing — which are not great, but it’s all we have,” Hotez said. “With a hurricane, we’ve knocked out two of our three pieces of artillery equipment.”

These are obviously not the best of circumstances. Tropical Storm Laura is now officially Hurricane Laura, and it’s already a pretty strong one. Jefferson County, Chambers County, Orange County, and Galveston County are under mandatory evacuation orders, with parts of Harris County issuing a recommendation that areas in the storm surge zone evacuate as well.

Harris County officials urged residents of some coastal areas to evacuate Tuesday as Hurricane Laura could strike the Houston region Wednesday evening.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for zones A and B and urged residents to leave immediately. She warned of a storm surge of three to five feet and high winds that could knock out power.

“All of us need to be prepared for the very real potential of a direct hit from this storm,” Hidalgo said. “Of course, we hope for the best, but we don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the worst case scenario.”

These zones include part or all of Deer Park, La Porte, League City, Friendswood, Seabrook, El Lago, Morgan’s Point and southeastern portions of the city of Houston.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned residents of congested traffic on freeways heading away from the coast and urged non-evacuating residents to avoid traveling if possible. Residents in the evacuation zone should not delay, he stressed, because Laura could change course unexpectedly.

“At this point in time, if it veers further to the west and becomes more of a direct hit on Houston-Harris County, we don’t really have a lot of time,” Turner said.

The mayor urged residents to be prepared for extended power outages, and noted that some households were without electricity for two weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He said people should be off the streets by 8 p.m. Wednesday, but stopped short of calling for a curfew.

Immediate safety concerns take precedence over more theoretical longer-term safety concerns. In the meantime, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. As of last night, it looks like the worst will probably (though not 100%) miss Houston, but that means Beaumont and Port Arthur are directly in its crosshairs. We’re going to need to mobilize a strong response, because it’s going to be bad.

As a programming matter, it is certainly possible that power and/or Internet outages will have an effect on my publication schedule. That’s a pretty minor consideration, but I wanted to note it just in case. Stay safe, everyone.

The state of the Democratic bench

It’s deeper now, and it could keep getting deeper after this year.

Rep. Victoria Neave

The speaking turns may have been brief and the spotlight not as bright, but Texas Democrats got a glimpse at their national convention this week of their emerging bench — beyond, notably, the usual suspects.

While names like Beto O’Rourke and Julián and Joaquin Castro continue to dominate the conversation — and O’Rourke had two roles in the convention — the virtual gathering also put on display at least four Texas Democrats who could have bright futures, too, either in 2022 or further down the line.

There was Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the 29-year-old leader of the state’s largest county, who appeared in video montages Monday and Thursday nights. There were U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Rep. Victoria Neave, both of Dallas, who spoke Tuesday night as part of a 17-person keynote address showcasing the party’s rising stars nationwide. And there was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who announced the Texas delegate count for Biden on Tuesday night while delivering a solemn reminder of the 2019 Walmart massacre in her home city. The next night, Escobar appeared in a compilation video about women’s suffrage.

The pared-down online convention meant the Texans may have not gotten as much time — or overall prominence — as usual, but for politicos watching closely, their inclusion alone was notable.

“As we know, for the last two decades, it’s been slim pickings for Democrats in Texas,” said Keir Murray, a Houston Democratic strategist. “I think Allred, Neave, Hidalgo — some of these up-and-comers who are likely not familiar at all to audiences outside their respective districts — even within the state of Texas is my guess — does show a sort of young and growing bench in the state of potential candidates who may move on to do bigger and better things in the future.”

The emergence of such rising leaders speaks to an obvious truth in politics, Murray said: “Winning is what creates stars.” Neave unseated a Republican in 2016, while Allred and Hidalgo took out GOP incumbents in 2018, and that same year, Escobar won the election to replace O’Rourke in the U.S. House.

None is actively entertaining plans to run for higher office, but they are part of a new wave of talent that is giving state Democrats hope that they no longer have to tie their fortunes to a singular figure like a Castro or O’Rourke. Plus, while the Castros have undoubtedly spent years helping the party, they have repeatedly passed on one of its greatest needs: running statewide.

I agree with Keir Murray, in that winning turns candidates into stars. Sometimes that’s because you’re new and interesting and the media loves new and interesting things to talk about; Dan Crenshaw is a good example of this. Sometimes it comes from being a first to win something, like Lizzie Fletcher being the first Democrat to win CD07 in however many decades. I guarantee you, the next Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas, even lower-profile races like Railroad Commissioner or Court of Criminal Appeals justice, is going to get a lot of attention. Obviously, accomplishing things and performing well in high-profile situations does a lot for one’s career as well.

But first you have to win, to get into position to do those things. And having a bench is about having more than stars, it’s about having people with knowledge, experience, connections, fundraising ability, and the desire to move up the ladder. The fact that there are more offices that a Democrat can run for and plausibly win – and then win again, in the next election – means more people who may have these qualities will put themselves in that position. It’s a lot harder to build a bench if there’s only a few things that are worth running for, as was the case earlier in the decade, in part because there’s no incentive to give up what you have when the next thing you try is so unlikely to be yours. We’ve moved from a world where Dems had a third of the Legislature, less than a third of the Congressional caucus, and nothing statewide, to a world where Dems have a plausible path to a majority in the State House and maybe half or even more of the seats in Congress from Texas. That’s naturally going to draw a lot more talent.

What’s ironic is that one needn’t be seen as a “rising star” necessarily to move up in the political world. Just look at the current Republican officeholders in Congress or statewide slots who got there from the State House. Sid Miller and Wayne Christian were State Reps before moving up. Hell, they had lost a primary for their State House seats before winning their statewide races. No one saw them as up-and-comers back then. Lance Gooden was a perfectly normal State Rep before winning the open seat primary in CD05 in 2018. Ken Paxton was a fairly bland State Rep who lucked into an open State Senate seat that he held for two years before winning the primary for Attorney General. Van Taylor, then a two-term State Rep, then stepped into Paxton’s Senate seat and was there for one term before moving up to Congress in CD03. All three seats were open at the time he ran for them, and he was unopposed in the primary for Senate and had token opposition in the primary for Congress. Timing is everything in this life. And as Texas moves from being a Republican state to one that anyone can win, that timing will help the newcomers on the scene.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

Who knows what our positivity rate is?

From the We Still Suck At Data Department:

As schools begin to reopen and Gov. Greg Abbott faces pressure to relax shutdown measures, it is impossible to determine where Texas stands on a COVID-19 metric that has guided the governor’s decisions on when to tighten or loosen restrictions on businesses and public activity.

Over the past week and a half, the state began reporting coronavirus data from a backlog of 500,000 viral tests that officials say accumulated because of coding errors from Quest Diagnostics, Walgreens and CHRISTUS Health — all private entities that process the tests.

The result has been an ongoing miscalculation of the “positivity rate,” the rate at which people test positive for the virus.

Last week, it reached as high as 24.5 percent, and suddenly dipped back down again to about 11 percent this week as more backlogged tests were included in the data. Abbott has said a sustained positivity rate below 10 percent would allow for further reopenings in the state.

The influx of backlogged tests, dating as far back as March, has also exposed a convoluted reporting system that requires state officials to receive lab results, send them back to counties and wait for them to return to the State Department of Health Services before counting them.

The result is a mess of information reported recently to the public in “data dumps” that include test results from months prior, skewing statewide coronavirus statistics and positivity rates.

“The timing of it is horrible because it’s right at the beginning of opening the schools, when you want your data to be as accurate as possible, and it’s not,” said Darrell Hale, a Republican commissioner in Collin County.

The county on Wednesday pasted a disclaimer to its COVID reporting site declaring “no confidence” in the state’s numbers, which Hale said have ballooned in recent days even as lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined.

[…]

Abbott faulted private labs for the glitches, as well as technological issues in the state’s own reporting system, which did not have the capacity to process more than 48,000 tests per day until Aug. 1. The state did not disclose the issue as it built up throughout July, when as many as 67,000 tests were conducted each day.

It may well be that the private labs can’t keep up with the demand. But:

1. Greg Abbott knew about this problem for at least a few weeks without ever saying anything about it.

2. The positivity rate was and is one of Abbott’s key metrics that were supposed to guide how and when we reopened things. Greg Abbott is currently not allowing local health authorities to make their own decisions about whether it is safe to open schools even though the data that we all need to know what the risks are cannot be trusted.

3. Greg Abbott continues to support and defend the federal government and its completely disastrous response to the pandemic, even though the federal government is the one entity in the country that could have marshaled the responses to meet the demand for testing. Nearly six months into this crisis, the federal government, under Donald Trump, which Greg Abbott supports, has made zero headway on this issue.

So yeah. Our data sucks, we are reaping the consequences of that failure, and the responsibility for it in this state rests with Greg Abbott.

No new judge for Paxton

Sorry, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is still fighting five-year-old felony securities fraud charges, has failed in his bid to kick a Democratic Harris County judge off his ongoing criminal case.

An administrative judge in Houston, Susan Brown, denied Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Jason Luong from the case, the Dallas Morning News first reported Friday.

It’s a loss for Paxton’s team in the long-running prosecution, which has yet to go to trial amid side fights over venue and prosecutor pay that have spanned years and bounced between numerous courts across the state. Paxton, a Republican, has maintained his innocence in the case, in which he is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it.

[…]

“We’re gratified that Judge Brown found that Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Luong was baseless,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors taking Paxton to trial. “We’re confident that Judge Luong will find that Paxton’s motion to keep from being tried in Harris County is cut from the same cloth.”

See here and here for the previous updates. Here’s that DMN story.

Luong, a Democrat, is the fourth judge to preside over Paxton’s case since the attorney general was charged in July 2015. The first judge to preside over the case recused himself early on. Paxton successfully argued for the recusal of the second judge, Tarrant County Republican George Gallagher, over his objections. The third judge to preside over the case, Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson, recused himself last month because the attorney general is representing him and several other judges in a lawsuit challenging the region’s cash bail system.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that Luong should be removed from the case for this same reason. The prosecutors, however, said Paxton wanted to recuse Luong because he could reverse Johnson’s decision, made just before his recusal, to move the case out of Harris County. The case was moved from Collin to Harris County in 2017 after the prosecutors argued that they would be unable to ensure a fair trial in Paxton’s backyard.

All righty then. What is unclear to me from these stories is whether or not Team Paxton can appeal this ruling. I’m sure if they can they will, all previous nattering about wanting to get their guy his day in court aside, but that is not addressed and they did not comment. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. I also assume any ruling Judge Luong may make on where the trial should be will wait until that happens, if it does. So we don’t yet know how much more time is on the clock before something substantial happens.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.

“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”

He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.

Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”

During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”

[…]

Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”

Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

Lawsuit filed to restore original Census deadline

Good.

Citing the high stakes of a botched census, Harris County and two of its Democratic county commissioners have signed on to a federal lawsuit trying to block the Trump administration’s efforts to end counting for the 2020 census a month earlier than planned.

The constitutionally required count of everyone living in the country had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic and was to run through Oct. 31. But the Census Bureau announced earlier this month it will end the count sooner, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in California alleges that the shortened schedule is unconstitutional because it will not produce a fair and accurate count and that the Census Bureau’s move violates federal administrative law because the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The lawsuit is led by the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Harris County, which is the state’s largest, joined in along with other local entities including the city of Los Angeles and King County in Washington. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia are signed on as individual plaintiffs.

“Undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding,” the lawsuit reads. “And communities of color will lose core political power and vital services. In contrast to these dire stakes, the immediate solution to this problem is simple: set aside and enjoin implementation of the impossibly-shortened Rush Plan, which is based on an unexplained change of position, and allow the Census Bureau to implement the plan that it had designed to fulfill its constitutional duties during the pandemic.”

[…]

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state, like in Harris County, had been in the works for years.

But those efforts have been further disrupted by what Harris County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit dubbed as the “rush plan.” Mailers ordered before the change had to be redone, with county workers forced to purchase stickers to cover the old deadline on those materials.

In announcing the new deadline, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the earlier deadline has heightened the possibility that Texas will be undercounted and that low-income and Hispanic Texans in particular — who were already at the highest risk of being missed — will go uncounted at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging their communities.

here for some background, and here for a peek at the lawsuit. Combined with Donald Trump’s surely illegal order to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted for the purposes of apportionment, it’s like Trump and his enablers really don’t want Texas to get any additional Congressional districts next decade. I continue to marvel at Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton’s ability to shrug that kind of insult off. By the way, that “arbitrary and capricious” language is a sign that the plaintiffs are aiming for a ruling that Trump has once again violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that has killed multiple similar efforts by Trump in the past. Let’s hope we can add this one to that trash heap.

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

HISD also spending more money on mobile technology

Also good.

Houston ISD officials anticipate receiving a chunk of the $32 million that Harris County leaders allocated this week for helping school districts buy sought-after computers and wireless Internet hotspots.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed said early conversations with county officials suggest the district could get about $4 million for technology — an amount that the Texas Education Agency could match to lessen the district’s financial burden.

Trustees voted Thursday to approve spending an additional $31 million on computers and hotspots this fiscal year, which would help outfit students needing technology while learning from home. HISD plans to remain online-only from early September through at least mid-October, and all families have the option to continue virtual classes throughout the year.

“No one has said ($4 million) is the number that’s been agreed to, but right now, we think that’s potentially where it is,” Reed said.

[…]

HISD officials have stopped short of guaranteeing all students will have access to computers and hotspots by their Sept. 8 start date. Surveys taken in July showed about 22,750 students lacked a computer, while district officials did not receive responses for about 37,200 students. HISD expects to receive about 25,000 devices in August and another 40,000 in September or October.

Reed said the combination of county and federal funds has “allowed us to actually increase the number of devices we can purchase,” though the final tally remains in flux.

See here for the background. Given that the start of school has been pushed back to September 8, I hope that the vast majority of students who need this equipment can get it in time. It really is a shame we didn’t address this sooner, but here we are. Let’s make sure every kid has what they need to succeed.

Despite it all, voter registration keeps increasing

You love to see it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Not even the worst pandemic to hit Texas in a century was enough to stem the surge in voter registrations that has remade the state’s electorate over the past four years.

Just since March, Texas has added nearly 149,000 voters even as the political parties and voter registration groups face new obstacles in signing up people in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The state now has a record 16.4 million voters, 2.1 million more than it had just over four years ago — a 15-percent increase in registrations that is nearly equivalent to the voter rolls of the entire state of Connecticut.

“It is a totally different electorate than it was in 2016,” said Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Harris County and Bexar County have led the way in the last three months with voter registration efforts. In Harris County, voter rolls have grown by 16,000, while in Bexar they are up almost 14,000. Combined, the two counties account for one-fifth of the increase in registrations statewide.

Texas voter registration rolls historically have grown very slowly. From 2002 to 2012, the rolls grew by 800,000. But now, registration is in hyperdrive. Just since November of 2018, Texas has added almost 600,000 voters.

Some of the change is coming from transplants moving from other states, while many others are coming from minority communities that voter registration advocacy groups have targeted over the last four years.

In short, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said 2020 is setting up as a real shootout in regions of the state that have become more competitive because of the diversification and growth of the electorate.

“It’s another step toward Texas being a true battleground,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

In Texas voters don’t register by party affiliation like many other states, making it unclear exactly how many Republican or Democratic voters are in the state.

But about one-third of the 1.3 million new voters since November 2018 come from three counties: Harris, Travis and Bexar — all deeply blue since 2016.

Harris and Bexar being at the top of the list doesn’t surprise Antonio Arellano, who is the leader of Jolt, a voter advocacy group focused on registering young Latino voters and getting them involved in politics. He said his group has been on the ground in those two counties.

While the coronavirus made registration drives impossible in traditional locations such as libraries, county fairs and large events, younger voters can still be found with direct messages on social media, text messages, and digital ads. The virus hasn’t affected those efforts at all.

“We harness culture, art and technology to get it done,” Arellano said.

Each year in Texas, 200,000 Latinos turn 18 — a population that is Jolt’s main focus.

Nice. The March voter registration figures are here, the January figures are here, and the November of 2018 figures are here. Harris County is right at 2.4 million, and I think we have a shot at getting to 2.5 million for November. As the story notes, average monthly voter registration figures are actually up since April, about double what it had been from November of 2018 through March. People have been working it, with Jolt, Battleground Texas, and Beto’s Powered by People all doing a lot of heavy lifting. You want to make a difference, get trained as a volunteer deputy voter registrar – the Harris County Tax Assessor has online ZOOM training sessions to become a VDVR – and join up with one of these groups. Every new voter matters.

I actually drafted this about a month ago, just before the primary runoffs, then as is sometimes the case kept putting off publishing it. Because I procrastinated, you can now see the state and county-by-county voter registration figures by looking at the contest details for the Senate runoff. But this post is even more of a delayed special than that. In the Before Times, I had drafted a story about where a lot of voter registrations were coming from – short answer, the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to D/FW – but between the primary and the world falling apart, I never got around to publishing it. I’m repurposing it for this post, so read on for what I had written a couple of months ago.

(more…)

Merging transit fare systems

There’s a frustratingly small amount of information in this story, but the basic idea, as best I understand it, is great.

Federal transit officials will spend $14.8 million making sure Houston area transit riders can have more options for how to pay their own way and have seamless options between local bus agencies.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority revamps its aging fare collection system to add options for how and where transit users can pay for rides, officials said making it easier to hop on a bus or train was paramount. That’s why board members said options such as paying with a smart phone was vital, along with adding multiple places such as corner stores where cash-paying transit riders could add money to Q cards.

Part of efforts to ease transit access was adding bus systems such as Fort Bend Transit and Harris County Transit to the system. Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region, could incorporate the smaller systems in, provided either federal or local money could be found.

Metro will receive the grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the second-largest award in this year’s round of money from Washington, announced Tuesday. Officials selected 96 projects totaling $464 million. The money covers replacing aging buses and related infrastructure such as maintenance centers, transit centers and bus stops.

I’ve been an advocate for having a broad regional one-fare-system-for-all-transit-networks approach. This is very much a baby step in that direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If you’re wondering, Harris County Transit runs bus service in some cities that are not part of Metro, so folding them into the same fare collection system makes perfect sense. I wish there were more to this story, or that there were a Metro press release I could read to see what else there may be to this, but this is all we have for now. All I can say is, make it a goal to expand this outward until there’s nowhere else in the region to expand to.

More on mail ballots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

Republicans in Texas have largely remained quiet on the issue.

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

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

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

And the nominees are…

Teneshia Hudspeth

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

David Brown

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

Time for another COVID roundup

Let’s start with some good news, which comes wrapped in a warning.

The number of coronavirus patients crowding hospital wards in the Houston area is now in its sixth week of steady decline, a welcome reversal of the virus’ alarming surge in June and July.

The headcount of COVID-19 patients has fallen by half since its mid-July peak in hospitals affiliated with the seven systems based in the Texas Medical Center. And the number of intensive care patients at those facilities has dropped by a third.

The subsiding wave has merely shifted civic leaders’ concerns, however — and not only because hospital headcounts, new cases, and other metrics remain well above their levels before the spike.

Worried that Houstonians will invite another crisis by concluding it is safe to attend cookouts or crowd onto restaurant patios, public officials and medical leaders are stressing that the best measures of success are not empty intensive care beds but an absence of widespread infections.

“I do worry about people listening to this news and taking it the wrong way, saying, ‘Whew that’s over, now let’s go back to life as normal,’” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health, the county’s public hospital district. “This is not the time.”

[…]

In every case, these metrics suggest the Houston region remains well short of containing the virus. The testing positivity rate, for instance, is about 15 percent in the city and county, and 10 percent among TMC institutions.

What about case counts? Harris County over the last week has averaged more than two and a half times as many daily cases as the 400 it would take to step down from Hidalgo’s top threat level. And the nine-county Houston region is averaging almost nine times as many new daily cases as the TMC goal of 200.

Another of Hidalgo’s metrics calls for the share of intensive care patients who have COVID-19 to not exceed 15 percent; the share of ICU patients in the county who have COVID-19 remains more than double that.

We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stay home. Maintain social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.

And while case numbers may be coming down, fatality numbers are higher than we’ve counted.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, the state’s death toll from all causes has soared by thousands above historical averages — a sobering spike that experts say reveals the true toll of the disease.

Between the beginning of the local pandemic and the end of July, 95,000 deaths were reported in Texas, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data. Based on historical mortality records and predictive modeling, government epidemiologists would have expected to see about 82,500 deaths during that time.

The CDC attributed more than 7,100 deaths to COVID-19, but that leaves roughly 5,500 more than expected and with no identified tie to the pandemic. The CDC’s chief of mortality, Dr. Bob Anderson, said these “excess deaths” are likely from a range of pandemic-related problems, including misclassifications because doctors did not initially understand the many ways that COVID-19 affects the circulatory system and results in a stroke or a heart attack.

“It can cause all sorts of havoc in the body,” he said.

The CDC data offers an opaque but important estimate of how deadly the virus has been in Texas, which suffered from testing shortages for weeks as COVID-19 case counts climbed.

“It has shocked me to see people think that there’s overcounts of the COVID deaths, because I can’t even imagine that that’d be the case,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas who studies mortality trends. “The undercount is so dramatic.”

And there is a clear racial disparity in the undercounts. Between March and the end of July, Texas recorded more than 21,000 deaths of Latinos — more than 5,000 higher than epidemiologists predicted. Of those, about 2,100 were attributed to COVID-19. That leaves more than 3,000 deaths in excess of the expected number, many of them in border counties that lack resources for testing.

This is a phenomenon we’ve seen literally around the world. We’ve certainly known that it’s happening in Texas. The expert opinion is that we’ve already passed 200K deaths nationally, or about 25% more than the official count. If you could read one of the names of those 200K dead Americans every second, it would take you over 55 hours, nonstop, to read them all. Think about that for a minute. Or for 55 hours.

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

After plummeting for days, the number of COVID-19 tests reported in Texas suddenly jumped by 124,693 on Thursday, which state health officials said was a result of coding errors and a system upgrade.

Backlogs at a hospital lab and a commercial lab accounted for most of the tests, which could not be added to the state’s official tally until the coding errors had been fixed, said Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Of the 124,000 tests reported on Thursday, approximately 95,000 were from a lab that served several hospitals, Anton said, adding that the lab sent files containing an error in one of the data fields, which DSHS’ electronic system could not read.

DSHS doesn’t know when the tests were actually conducted and is working with local health departments to find out, she said.

[…]

Whether because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes, it’s not the first time that Texas officials have corrected their data since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every major data point has come with caveats, sometimes blurring for days the big picture of the pandemic in Texas.

It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say.

Finally, the coin shortage is real, y’all.

Some retailers have started posting signs notifying customers that they might not be able to provide exact change for their purchases, and instead ask for them to pay with a credit or debit card or exact payment.

“It’s not like coins are not there,” said Venky Shankar, professor and director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. The coins are just being used less as business has slowed and more people stay home.

Another hurdle for coin usage, Shankar said, is the fear that money could carry the novel coronavirus, even though experts don’t know definitively whether cash actually poses a threat.

In order to keep coins circulating, the U.S. Mint has asked people to pay with exact change. “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk,” the mint said in a news release. A new task force — the U.S. Coin Task Force — has also been charged with determining how to reinvigorate the supply chain.

[…]

According to Shankar, roughly 45 to 50 percent of sales in smaller stores — places such as convenience stores — are made in cash. But big grocers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart have also faced a shortage of coins.

In response to the shortage, some retailers and restaurants have started to pay or reward customers for their coins.

The U.S. Mint has also increased production from 1.2 billion coins in June to 1.35 billion coins per month for the rest of 2020, according to a Statista review.

But that doesn’t solve everything.

“That still will not unlock the coins that are already in the drawers and the banks,” Shankar said.

Laundromats, which rely heavily on coins to function, are among the businesses directly impacted by the coin shortage.

Yeah, that would suck if no one has any damn quarters. This is a problem all over, and offhand I have no idea what to do about it. I normally like paying for things in cash, but have barely used any since March. This is a teeny tiny reason for saying this, but we live in very strange times.

Do not wait with your mail ballot

You have been warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: From Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins:

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

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

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

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

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Harris County to join TDP lawsuit over vote by mail

They do lots of stuff at Commissioners Court.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to join a lawsuit by Texas Democrats suing Gov. Greg Abbott to expand vote-by-mail in Texas.

The Democratic-led commissioners court voted 3-2 to join the lawsuit. The litigation seeks to allow all Texas voters to cast a mail-in ballot during the pandemic, arguing that absentee ballot restrictions in Texas violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution. Texas Democrats filed the suit against Abbott and the Texas Secretary of State in April.

[…]

Democrats attempted to leapfrog over the appeals court by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene before the July primary runoff elections, but the justices declined to do so until a decision by the lower appeals court was reached. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to revisit the case sometime this month.

See here for the most recent update that I have, and here for a tweet from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, which is the only other place I’ve seen this noted. It’s unclear to me what difference it makes from a practical perspective for Harris County to join in, but from a political and symbolic perspective it means a lot. Let’s do hope we hear something from the Fifth Circuit soon.

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

They can’t issue mandates, so this will have to do.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday unveiled the county’s guidance for school reopenings, recommending based on a handful of COVID-19 metrics that schools offer only virtual instruction in the coming weeks until the virus is further curbed.

County officials are issuing the guidance as families and education officials continue to grapple with the idea of resuming in-person classes in the coming weeks, and after Gov. Greg Abbott barred local officials from ordering campus shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the non-binding guidance, Hidalgo and county health officials recommended that school districts offer only virtual instruction as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

School districts are advised to reopen with reduced capacity as those metrics improve and Harris County hospitals see a 14-day average flattening or decrease in their general and intensive care unit bed populations. At that point, school officials can consult with Harris County Public Health officials on their plans to reopen.

“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”

Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other organizations.

[…]

County officials have not yet publicly released the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, though Umair Shah, the director of Harris County’s public health department, announced Tuesday that the rate is between 15 and 16 percent. The Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center on Monday reported positivity rates of 14.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. The city’s 14-day average has continued to decline since peaking at nearly 30 percent in early July, but remains above the county roadmap’s 5 percent threshold.

Hidalgo and Shah lack the authority to order compliance with the roadmap before the school year begins. Abbott said July 31 that local school boards and state education officials can limit the reopening of buildings in the first eight weeks of the school year, but county officials may not shut down campuses preemptively.

The governor said local health authorities may shut down campuses in response to confirmed outbreaks in a building, but Texas Education Agency leaders said public school districts risk losing state funding if schools remain closed for longer than five days.

You know how I feel about this, so I’m mostly going to peace out here. Judge Hidalgo had ordered schools closed for in-person instruction until at least September 8, back when that was a thing the locals could do. HISD is beginning remote learning only on that date now, and even as a parent of two HISD students, I have no freaking idea when they will be ordered back to the classroom. You can see the Ready Harris roadmap here and the metrics for success here. Maybe if Greg Abbott took this stuff half as seriously as Judge Hidalgo does, we’d be in a better position to reopen schools with some confidence.