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Harris County Attorney

Harris County Attorney sues Juul

From the inbox:

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee filed a lawsuit Thursday in California state court against e-cigarette company JUUL and several of its executives. Harris County is the first governmental entity in Texas to join the nationwide fight to hold JUUL accountable for the deliberate and deceptive marketing of its highly addictive and destructive products to young people.

“JUUL took its marketing plan from the tobacco industry’s template by creating an image that would lure teenagers. JUUL’s vaping devices are designed to appear like a slick, high-tech gadget that’s attractive to young people. The brand even offers kid-friendly flavors like mango and cool mint,” said Harris County Attorney Menefee. “Cigarette companies were long ago barred from engaging in this type of marketing. Our youth do not deserve to be exploited by a company looking for a lifetime of profits. My office will hold JUUL accountable for its exploitative and negligent practices designed to create the next generation of nicotine users. Lawsuits were a major reason that federal regulators finally reined in cigarette industry, which has caused so much death in this country. I will continue that tradition by making sure JUUL doesn’t get away with the same behavior.”

The lawsuit contends JUUL targeted young people by using social media to showcase the product as a lifestyle brand. The company also adopted a “Make the Switch” campaign to mislead the public that e-cigarettes were benign smoking cessation devices, even though JUUL was never designed to break addictions.

In fact, JUUL’s e-cigarettes were designed to maximize addiction through its patented nicotine delivery mechanism. The CDC’s website warns of nicotine’s harmful effects on the developing brains of adolescents, and how JUUL’s products have also caused lung and cardiovascular injuries. JUUL also took advantage of the loose regulations for e-cigarettes, and made sure its products and advertising do not contain any health risk warnings.

As part of this lawsuit, the Harris County Attorney’s Office is also suing cigarette giant Altria, which owns 35% of JUUL and other companies like Philip Morris. Altria was instrumental in helping JUUL develop its marketing tactics, using its well-developed playbook.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here – it’s quite long. This was filed in California because that’s where Juul is based, but there’s more to it than that. There’s already a bunch of lawsuits against Juul over its marketing practices in California, and they are basically combined in what is known as a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding, their term for when there are multiple similar lawsuits across different judicial districts. This Law.com article, which is mostly paywalled, gives a bit of an outline of what that means. If you look at the Harris County filing, you’ll see that it’s also in this JCCP, in the same court that the Law.com story references.

As I understand it, these cases all have similar claims, some filed by government entities and some by private plaintiffs, and a subset of lawyers from them will lead the litigation. The idea is for Harris County to be among them. Harris is the first county in Texas to file this kind of lawsuit against Juul. The county needed to get permission from the Attorney General’s office to hire outside counsel for the suit, on a contingency basis, which it has received. Other state AGs have taken action themselves, including California and New York. It’s certainly possible that Texas will follow along that path – I’m old enough to remember the massive tobacco lawsuit settlement that Texas and then-AG Dan Morales got in the 90s – but that remains to be seen. If that does happen, the state can file its lawsuit here.

The only news story I found relating to this when I looked was from Click2Houston, which mostly recaps the press release. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Precinct analysis: County Attorney 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney

The office of County Attorney gets less attention than District Attorney, but as we have seen it’s vitally important. Vince Ryan held the office for three terms before being ousted in the primary by Christian Menefee. Menefee’s overall performance was similar to Ryan’s in 2016 – I’ll get to that in a minute – but as we saw in the previous post that doesn’t mean there can’t be a fair bit of variance. Let’s see where that takes us. Here’s the 2020 breakdown:


Dist     Nation  Menefee  Nation% Menefee%
==========================================
CD02    178,265  154,520   53.57%   46.43%
CD07    149,139  151,213   49.65%   50.35%
CD08     25,809   14,986   63.27%   36.73%
CD09     37,016  119,594   23.64%   76.36%
CD10    102,438   59,410   63.29%   36.71%
CD18     58,121  179,867   24.42%   75.58%
CD22     21,591   20,074   51.82%   48.18%
CD29     48,935  100,744   32.69%   67.31%
CD36     82,457   48,040   63.19%   36.81%
				
SBOE4   104,688  334,552   23.83%   76.17%
SBOE6   380,793  351,322   52.01%   47.99%
SBOE8   218,290  162,575   57.31%   42.69%
				
SD04     55,522   22,733   70.95%   29.05%
SD06     56,939  117,097   32.72%   67.28%
SD07    235,108  171,376   57.84%   42.16%
SD11     76,866   46,710   62.20%   37.80%
SD13     36,807  159,259   18.77%   81.23%
SD15    112,115  194,216   36.60%   63.40%
SD17    115,210  125,384   47.89%   52.11%
SD18     15,204   11,676   56.56%   43.44%
				
HD126    38,751   33,320   53.77%   46.23%
HD127    53,950   35,101   60.58%   39.42%
HD128    48,046   21,796   68.79%   31.21%
HD129    47,571   35,152   57.51%   42.49%
HD130    69,976   32,109   68.55%   31.45%
HD131     9,822   44,446   18.10%   81.90%
HD132    50,540   47,980   51.30%   48.70%
HD133    49,624   36,901   57.35%   42.65%
HD134    46,775   58,410   44.47%   55.53%
HD135    36,489   36,696   49.86%   50.14%
HD137    10,191   20,871   32.81%   67.19%
HD138    31,535   30,924   50.49%   49.51%
HD139    15,325   44,753   25.51%   74.49%
HD140     9,241   21,586   29.98%   70.02%
HD141     6,943	  35,992   16.17%   83.83%
HD142    13,733   41,540   24.85%   75.15%
HD143    11,934   24,039   33.17%   66.83%
HD144    13,762   16,387   45.65%   54.35%
HD145    14,777   26,896   35.46%   64.54%
HD146    11,016   43,379   20.25%   79.75%
HD147    14,738   53,266   21.67%   78.33%
HD148    21,758   36,937   37.07%   62.93%
HD149    21,400   30,636   41.13%   58.87%
HD150    55,873   39,332   58.69%   41.31%
				
CC1      90,530  280,069   24.43%   75.57%
CC2     149,810  143,859   51.01%   48.99%
CC3     224,601  210,646   51.60%   48.40%
CC4     238,830  213,877   52.76%   47.24%
				
JP1      90,035  165,193   35.28%   64.72%
JP2      33,965   48,473   41.20%   58.80%
JP3      51,412   67,741   43.15%   56.85%
JP4     233,642  184,203   55.92%   44.08%
JP5     201,673  214,852   48.42%   51.58%
JP6       7,971   26,993   22.80%   77.20%
JP7      17,824  100,329   15.09%   84.91%
JP8      67,249   40,667   62.32%   37.68%

Menefee scored 54.66% of the vote, better than Ogg by almost a point, and better than Ryan’s 53.72% in 2016 by slightly more. Ryan was consistently an upper echelon performer in his three elections, and that was true in 2016 as well, as only Ogg, Hillary Clinton, and judicial candidate Kelly Johnson had more votes than his 685,075, with those three and Mike Engelhart being the only ones with a larger margin of victory than Ryan’s 95K. Menefee, who collected 848,451 total votes and won by a margin of 145K, was also top tier. His vote total trailed all of the statewide candidates except Chrysta Castaneda and Gisela Triana (one better than Kim Ogg), though his percentage was better than everyone except Joe Biden and Tina Clinton. He outpaced three of the four appellate court candidates (he trailed Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and all but four of the local judicial candidates. His margin of victory was eighth best, behind Biden, Castaneda, two statewide judicials, and three local judicials. (And Ed Gonzalez, but we’ll get to him next.)

Here’s my 2016 precinct analysis post for the County Attorney race, and here’s the relevant data from that year:


Dist    Leitner     Ryan  Leitner%   Ryan%
==========================================
CD02    158,149  113,363    58.25%  41.75%
CD07    135,129  116,091    53.79%  46.21%
CD09     25,714  106,728    19.42%  80.58%
CD10     80,244   36,703    68.62%  31.38%
CD18     46,062  154,354    22.98%  77.02%
CD29     35,312   93,732    27.36%  72.64%
				
SBOE6   331,484  269,022    55.20%  44.80%
				
HD126    34,999   25,571    57.78%  42.22%
HD127    47,719   24,876    65.73%  34.27%
HD128    40,809   17,464    70.03%  29.97%
HD129    41,206   26,677    60.70%  39.30%
HD130    58,268   21,630    72.93%  27.07%
HD131     6,719   39,011    14.69%  85.31%
HD132    37,294   30,571    54.95%  45.05%
HD133    46,509   28,002    62.42%  37.58%
HD134    42,937   44,634    49.03%  50.97%
HD135    31,651   27,468    53.54%  46.46%
HD137     8,661   17,869    32.65%  67.35%
HD138    26,893   23,486    53.38%  46.62%
HD139    11,874   39,721    23.01%  76.99%
HD140     6,316   20,762    23.33%  76.67%
HD141     4,969   32,887    13.13%  86.87%
HD142    10,179   34,249    22.91%  77.09%
HD143     8,745   23,486    27.13%  72.87%
HD144    10,725   16,024    40.09%  59.91%
HD145    10,858   22,921    32.14%  67.86%
HD146     9,532   38,323    19.92%  80.08%
HD147    11,719   45,087    20.63%  79.37%
HD148    17,529   29,206    37.51%  62.49%
HD149    15,405   27,290    36.08%  63.92%
HD150    48,085   26,950    64.08%  35.92%
				
CC1      70,740  240,579    22.72%  77.28%
CC2     123,739  124,368    49.87%  50.13%
CC3     188,415  160,213    54.04%  45.96%
CC4     206,707  158,990    56.52%  43.48%

Kim Ogg did slightly better in the districts in 2016 than Vince Ryan did (most notably in CD02, though Ryan outdid her in HD134), which is what you’d expect given her overall better performance. In a similar fashion, Menefee did slightly better in the districts than Ogg did, as expected given his superior totals. He won CD07 by a thousand more votes than Ogg did, and carried HD135 where Ogg did not. He lost CC2 by two points and 6K votes, while Ogg lost it by four points and 12K votes. His lead in CD29 was 6K smaller than Ryan’s was, while Ogg lost 10K off of her lead in CD29 from 2016.

Overall, Menefee improved on Ryan’s 2016 totals, and made larger gains than Ogg did over her 2016 numbers. Like Ogg, he lost ground in the Latino districts – CD29, HD140, HD143, HD144, CC2 – but not by as much. He had higher vote totals in the Latino State Rep districts, though by small amounts in HDs 140, 143, and 144, and increased the lead over what Ryan had achieved in HDs 145 and 148. Like Ogg, he also lost ground in HD149, going from a 12K lead to a 9K lead, and in HD128, going from a 23K deficit to a 27K deficit (Ogg went from down 21K to down 27K). He gained ground in HD127 (from down 23K to down 19K; Ogg stayed roughly the same) and lost only about a thousand net votes in HD130 as Ogg went from down 34K to down 39K. He posted strong gains in HD126 (down 9K to down 5K), HD133 (down 18K to down 13K), and HD150 (down 21K to down 16K).

On the whole, a very strong initial performance by Menefee. As I said, County Attorney is generally a lower-profile job than District Attorney and Sheriff, but between bail reform, the multiple election lawsuits, and the forthcoming Republican legislative assault on local control, there should be many chances for Menefee to make statements about what he does and can do. He’ll have a solid chance to build on what he did this year when he’s next up for election.

Do we still have to worry about the Elections Administrator’s office?

I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but…

Isabel Longoria

This year, Harris County began the process of consolidating the two offices that have historically handled elections — the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office — under one roof.

Isabel Longoria, a special advisor on voting rights to the county clerk, was sworn in to lead the new office last month.

“Fundamentally the office is shifting from being reactive to proactive,” Longoria told the Signal. “Under the tax office and county clerk offices, since elections and voter registration were just one part of what they did, it was always kind of like, ‘oh shit elections are coming, now what’ or ‘oh shit, we’ve got to register voters, now what’ — now we have the capacity to say that this is our focus year-round.”

Harris County voters are already benefiting from some new practices, some they can see and some they can’t. Election results in the county are now updating every thirty minutes, and behind the scenes, election officials are working more closely together. For example, Longoria said the heads of both the voter registration and elections department were in the same room at NRG on election day.

[…]

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Harris County informing them that Longoria’s newly created office did not exist. Paxton argued that the county violated Texas election code by creating the office without the proper timing and without appropriately informing the Texas Secretary of State. He gave the county two weeks to take “corrective action” before his office would intervene.

Harris County Commissioners Court was unmoved by the threat, the county attorney replied to Paxton detailing the paperwork, and nothing has come of it since. And business as usual has continued at the elections administrator’s office, Longoria said.

“I think he just wanted to make sure we filed our paperwork, and we did,” Longoria said. “That’s it. It’s one of those things where… yeah… nothing happened.”

That story was published on December 14, right after the District B runoff, which was the first election fully administered by the new office. It was also two weeks after Ken Paxton’s temper tantrum about the slow notification of the office’s creation and the appointment of Longoria as the chief. It’s now been four weeks since Paxton raised the possibility of taking Harris County to court if they didn’t take “corrective action” within two weeks. I guess Vince Ryan’s email to Paxton settled the matter, which suggests that maybe Paxton was making a much bigger deal over a minor boo-boo than he needed to make. Of course, he’s been a pretty busy man since then, what with being raided by the FBI and trying to overturn the election and all, so maybe he just hasn’t gotten back around to this. Sometimes these things just take longer than you think they will, you know?

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

I hadn’t realized that this was a thing, but it was and I’m glad it was.

A task force formed to ensure the security of the November election in Texas’ biggest county has found no evidence of wrongdoing after finishing its work.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force was made up of the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office and the county clerk’s office. In a report published Friday, the task force said it “received approximately 20 allegations of wrongdoing that needed to be elevated to the level of a formal investigation.”

“Despite claims, our thorough investigations found no proof of any election tampering, ballot harvesting, voter suppression, intimidation or any other type of foul play that might have impacted the legitimate cast or count of a ballot,” the report says.

[…]

The task force operated from Oct. 13 through Nov. 3, which was Election Day, according to the report. Undercover officers made 6,311 visits to 122 early voting and 806 Election Day polling sites. The task force responded to 77 calls for service. And it used four explosive-detecting K-9 units to to make 323 sweeps of polling locations, as well as “continual sweeps” while voters dropped off ballots at NRG Stadium on Election Day. (The task force found no explosives.)

“We all worked together to ensure our elections, which are the lifeblood of democracy, were free and fair and that any and all allegations were thoroughly investigated,” Ogg said.

The report is here, and it’s an easy read. This is good from a pragmatic perspective, in that it was good for the various law enforcement agencies to work together and coordinate efforts, and it was good from a transparency perspective, as each incident is detailed along with the response and resolution. You should read through the incident reports, which begin on page 8 and are the bulk of the document. Incident #2 was the subject of some fever-swamp “reporting” on right wing websites – a fellow Democrat who had come across one of those stories emailed me about it early on, and I noted in my reply to them the various ways in which it sounded like BS – while incident #22 was the Aguirre situation, which the report noted was referred to the DA’s office. The fact that in addition to responding to calls from the public, the task force made regular proactive checks on voting locations to ensure their safety was retroactively reassuring to me. It also had an actual, positive effect, unlike the fear-mongering and snipe hunting our state leaders engaged in. Put this down as another innovation from 2020 that we should keep on doing in the future.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

The Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he said they illegally created an independent elections office and hired an administrator.

The move invites a potential lawsuit from the attorney general, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was confident the county would win.

“This is another example of (Attorney) General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans,” Ellis said.

He noted that Paxton sued to prevent counties from installing more than one drop box for mail-in ballots during this fall’s general election. The attorney general also convinced the Texas Supreme Court to block Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.5 million registered voters. Paxton also had issued an opinion suggesting the county’s drive-thru voting arrangements violated the state election code.

[…]

In a written response to Paxton Tuesday, [County Attorney Vince] Ryan acknowledged that Harris County had not promptly informed the state of those actions. He said, however, that Texas law says the delays do not change their validity.

Harris County joined more than 100 other Texas counties in creating an independent elections office, which combines the election management role of the county clerk with the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted in favor of the change, arguing it is more efficient. The two Republicans were opposed, saying it created an administrator who is unaccountable to voters.

The court was similarly divided in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion. Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Paxton’s threat as a distraction and said Longoria must be able to do her job.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said Ellis’s criticism of Paxton was unfounded. The attorney general has a duty to ensure the law is followed, he said.

“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think there is some evil intent,” Cagle said.

See here for the background, and let’s put aside for the moment the laughable idea that Ken Paxton has any moral authority when it comes to telling people to obey the rules. I dismissed Paxton’s threats as mere bluster, but I’m an Internet smartass. There are no real consequences when I’m wrong about something. I certainly hope Vince Ryan is right about this – and as a side matter, I hope incoming County Attorney Christian Menefee was consulted and is on board with this, because it will be his mess to clean up if Ryan and the rest of us are wrong. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if we’re about to be dragged into a prolonged court battle, or if this was indeed just hot air. The Texas Signal and the Chron’s Erica Greider have more.

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

Someone is going to have to help me understand this, because I’m clearly missing something.

Best mugshot ever

Harris County failed to follow the Texas Election Code when it created an independent election administration office, rendering the office and the appointment of Isabel Longoria as administrator null and void, according to Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the county attorney’s office, Paxton said Harris County did not inform the secretary of state in a timely fashion, as required by law, when it created the new office in July and when an administrator was selected in October to run it.

“As a result, neither the Commissioners Court’s July 14, 2020 order nor the Election Commission’s October 30, 2020 appointment of (Isabel) Longoria to the position holds any legal weight,” Paxton wrote. “In short, the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist.”

Longoria’s appointment should be rescinded, the attorney general said.

County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth referred questions to County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who deferred to the County Attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to the secretary of state.

“We feel confident that, after they review this, all misunderstandings will be cleared up,” Soard said.

Longoria said in a statement that the county attorney had advised her there were no procedural issues with the creation of her office; she will continue working.

[…]

The Election Code requires counties to inform the secretary of state within three days of creating an elections administration office. Within six days, it must inform the state of the appointment of an administrator.

Paxton said Harris County waited two weeks to inform the secretary of state it had created the elections administration office and three weeks to formally disclose the hiring of Longoria as administrator, a senior aide in the County Clerk’s Office.

Harris County must take “corrective action” within 14 days, the attorney general said, or the state may take the issue to court. Paxton did not respond to a question asking why his office did not address Harris County’s error in July.

County Attorney Vince Ryan placed an item on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda to discuss the matter.

Here’s the relevant statutes relating to an Elections Administrator:

Sec. 31.031. CREATION OF POSITION. (a) The commissioners court by written order may create the position of county elections administrator for the county.

(b) The order must state the date the creation of the position of administrator is effective. The effective date may not be later than 12 months after the date the order is adopted.

(c) To facilitate the orderly transfer of duties on the effective date, the order may authorize the commissioners court to employ the administrator-designate not earlier than the 90th day before the effective date of the creation of the position, at a salary not to exceed that to be paid to the administrator.

(d) Not later than the third day after the date the order is adopted, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the order to:

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

Sec. 31.032. APPOINTMENT OF ADMINISTRATOR; COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION. (a) The position of county elections administrator is filled by appointment of the county election commission, which consists of:

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

(3) the county tax assessor-collector, as secretary; and

(4) the county chair of each political party that made nominations by primary election for the last general election for state and county officers preceding the date of the meeting at which the appointment is made.

(b) The affirmative vote of a majority of the commission’s membership is necessary for the appointment of an administrator.

(c) Each appointment must be evidenced by a written resolution or order signed by the number of commission members necessary to make the appointment. Not later than the third day after the date an administrator is appointed, the officer who presided at the meeting shall file a signed copy of the resolution or order with the county clerk. Not later than the third day after the date the copy is filed, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the resolution or order to the secretary of state.

(d) The initial appointment may be made at any time after the adoption of the order creating the position.

The relevant sections relating to timing are highlighted in bold. As was noted in the comments to the Chron story, there’s nothing in the laws to say what happens if a county, for whatever the reason, fails to do the paperwork in a timely fashion. Saying that the appointment is null and void for being a few days late is to be the equivalent of saying that because there were a couple of precincts in Wayne County that didn’t exactly balance we need to throw out every vote in the county. I may not be a lawyer, but I can tell when the remedy doesn’t fit the alleged infraction. And if we’re going to be super-technical about it, then let Commissioners Court rescind and re-appoint Longoria today, and notify the Secretary of State later in the day via email, fax, Fed Ex, town crier, and unfurling a giant poster with Isabel Longoria’s picture on it outside the SOS office tomorrow morning. Will that suffice?

This part puzzles me even more:

Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a frequent critic of local Democrats, urged Commissioners Court to revoke Longoria’s appointment.

“Appointing an administrator of elections in the nation’s third largest county should have been made by following the prescribed legal process to the letter,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The attorney general’s letter is specific that the duties of that office should be returned to the elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector.”

The dispute is the latest in a series of disagreements between Texas leaders and Harris County officials over how the state’s largest county runs its elections. Paxton and state Elections Director Keith Ingram see their actions as reigning in rogue local leaders; Hidalgo and county officials view them as unnecessary micromanagement.

I mean, we’re aware that all of the election innovation that made Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt SO MAD last month was done by the County Clerk, right? Not a non-partisan official whose bosses include the Chair of the Harris County GOP? I’m trying real hard here, but I fail to see what they think they’d be gaining by putting Teneshia Hudspeth in charge of running elections. Do they think she wouldn’t keep doing what she did while Chris Hollins and Diane Trautman were in charge? Have they forgotten that she’s an elected Democrat? Seriously, what is their angle here? I mean, other than being little pettifoggers with a grievance. Like I said up front, someone help me understand this one.

Menefee and Fagan

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

Christian Menefee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last, desperate attempt to kill drive-though voting

These guys really suck. Not much more can be said.

A new challenge to Harris County’s drive-thru voting sites, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House, asks the state Supreme Court to void ballots “illegally” cast by voters in cars.

That could put more than 100,000 ballots at risk, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats and raising fears among voters, including those with disabilities and others who were directed into drive-thru lanes as a faster method of voting.

[…]

One of the unsuccessful challenges was filed by the Republican Party of Texas. The second was from the Harris County GOP, activist Steven Hotze, and Sharen Hemphill, a GOP candidate for district judge in Harris County. Neither petition sought to void votes.

That changed with the latest petition filed shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday by Hotze, Hemphill, GOP congressional candidate Wendell Champion, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

The new petition asks the all-Republican Supreme Court to confiscate memory cards from voting machines at drive-thru locations and reject any votes cast in violation of state election laws.

The petition argues that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who submit a sworn application saying they have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

“Hollins is allowing curbside/drive-thru voting for all 2.37 million registered voters in Harris County. This is a clear and direct violation of his duties,” the petition argued.

But Hollins has said drive-thru voting is just another polling place with a different layout and structure, and that it was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted.

Vehicles form lines and enter the voting area one at a time, where a clerk checks each voter’s photo ID, has them sign a roster and hands over a sanitized voting machine. Voting typically takes place in large individual tents, and poll watchers can observe the processing of voters no differently than in traditional voting locations, Hollins has argued.

See here for the previous entry. As I said yesterday, I just don’t believe the Supreme Court will do this. It’s such a drastic step to take, it’s punitive towards a lot of voters who had every reason to believe they were doing something legal, it would be an enormous partisan stain on the court and the justices, four of whom are on the ballot themselves, and as I said if the court felt such an outcome was in play, they could have clearly signaled it earlier to minimize the effect on the voters. Maybe I’m naive, or willfully blind. This just seems like a bridge way too far. I guess we’ll find out.

SCOTX rejects challenges to drive-through voting

Halle-fricking-lujah.

Voters in the state’s most populous county can continue casting their ballots for the fall election at 10 drive-thru polling places after the Texas Supreme Court Thursday rejected a last-minute challenge by the Texas and Harris County Republican parties, one of many lawsuits in an election season ripe with litigation over voting access.

The court rejected the challenge without an order or opinion, though Justice John Devine dissented from the decision.

[…]

Though the program was publicized for months before the ongoing election, it was not until hours before early voting started last week that the Texas Republican Party and a voter challenged the move in a state appeals court, arguing that drive-thru votes would be illegal. They claimed drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore should only be available for disabled voters.

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

The lawsuit also asked the court to further restrict curbside voting by requiring that voters first fill out applications citing a disability. Such applications are required for mail-in ballots, but voting rights advocates and the Harris County Clerk said they have never been a part of curbside voting.

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

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for County Clerk Chris Hollins’ attempt to get the Secretary of State on record about this. The decision came down a couple of hours after County Judge Lina Hidalgo (among others) called on Greg Abbott to do the same. This would have been a monumental middle finger to the voters of Harris County, and an utter disgrace for the Supreme Court, had they upheld the Republican challenge. I don’t know what took them so long, but if they’re going to be slow about it, they’d better get it right, and this time they did. Exhale, everyone.

We shouldn’t leave this item without giving Hollins the victory lap he deserves:

There’s a bit more on Hollins’ Twitter feed. When he says that every county should do it like this, he’s absolutely right. You can see all the SCOTX denials here, and the Chron has more.

(Oh, and let’s please do remember this when John Devine is up for election next. The rest of the court may have done the right thing, but that guy has truly got to go.)

Hollins calls on Secretary of State to defend drive through voting

Good.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking assurance from Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs that her office is “committed to defending the votes” cast at the county’s drive-thru voting sites, the subject of two lawsuits currently before the state Supreme Court.

In a letter sent to Hughs Tuesday, Hollins cited prior support from state election officials, including Elections Director Keith Ingram, for the legality of drive-thru voting. He asked Hughs to confirm by noon Wednesday that the office stands by those statements.

By noon, Hollins had not received a response from Hughs, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

A spokesman for Hughs said the office had received Hollins’ letter, but he declined to say whether Hughs or anyone from her office planned to respond. He also did not say whether Hollins had accurately characterized the position of state elections officials on drive-thru voting.

[…]

In his letter to Hughs, Hollins wrote, “Your office has repeatedly expressed that drive-thru voting fit the definitions and requirements for a polling place provided in the Texas Election Code for both Early Voting and Election Day.” During a court proceeding, Hollins wrote, Ingram called drive-thru voting “a creative approach that is probably okay legally.”

Last Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a guidance letter in which he suggested Harris County’s use of curbside voting does not pass legal muster. He wrote that state law “makes no provision for polling places located outdoors, in parking lots, or in parking structures.” The state election code also does not allow “‘drive-thru’ voting centers at which any voter may cast a ballot from his or her vehicle regardless of physical condition,” Paxton wrote.

“Curbside voting is not, as some have asserted contrary to Texas law, an option for any and all voters who simply wish to vote from the comfort of their cars when they are physically able to enter the polling place,” Paxton wrote.

You can see a video call with Hollins about this here, his official statement here, and further coverage from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer here. The concern at this point is not just that the Supreme Court might put a halt to what Harris County has been doing, but that they might invalidate the 70K+ votes that have been cast by drive-through voting. The contempt for voters that this would display, at this super late hour, is breathtaking. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I don’t know what else to say.

I don’t know when the Supreme Court might rule on this facially ridiculous challenge, but I will note that not only was it filed after early voting had begun, it’s now been a week since it was filed with SCOTX. They’re taking their sweet time about this. I hope that means that they’re not willing to stick a knife in this, but all I have is hope. Again, what this writ represents is plain and simple contempt for voters. There’s no other principle here.

On a side note, we also have this:

That is of course in reference to this turd of a Fifth Circuit ruling, and it’s exactly what we’d expect from the Clerk’s office. Every other election administrator in this state should follow their example.

And it’s off to SCOTX for the Republicans who want to stop drive-through voting

It was inevitable.

State and local Republicans have taken their challenge of drive-thru voting in Harris County to the Texas Supreme Court.

In separate petitions, the Texas and Harris County GOP are asking the state’s highest court to limit drive-thru voting, which Clerk Christopher Hollins opened this year at 10 sites and made available to all voters.

The GOP argues the new practice is a form of curbside voting, which only is allowed for people who are sick at the time, have a physical condition that requires personal assistance or are at risk of injured health if they venture inside a polling location.

[…]

“The aforementioned criteria for curbside voting is equally applicable to ballots by mail voting,” the petition said. “With respect to ballot by mail voting, the Texas Supreme Court has already held that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code, and therefore, is not a sufficient basis to permit a voter to validly vote by mail.”

The county argues its drive-thru sites are not a form of curbside voting. The 10 sites are contained within a parking garage or tent facilities, a quality attorneys argue satisfies the criteria to be polling sites in their own right.

“The basic requirement for polling places is that it’s in a building,” Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said. “We’re interpreting that as long as we have a permanent or temporary structure,” it’s OK.

Even if it were curbside voting, Ray argued, it is up to the voter to decide whether he or she has a disability. The county does not have the legal authority to question disability claims, he said.

It is not clear how the votes already cast at drive-thru sites would be handled if the Supreme Court were to side with the plaintiffs.

The state GOP’s petition asks for a ruling forcing Hollins to “reject any curbside voting efforts” that do not comply with its interpretation of the law.

See here and here for the background, and here for both of the plaintiffs’ petitions. I have no idea how quickly the Supreme Court might move on this, but we’ve had three full days of drive-through voting so far, and going by the daily report, thousands of people have used it. I can’t imagine any ruling for the plaintiffs that wouldn’t be deeply disruptive, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s not supposed to happen with court rulings close to an election. But like I’ve said, the Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, and all we can do is adjust when they do it. Stay tuned.

Petition to stop drive-through voting dismissed

That was quick.

Drive-thru and curbside voting programs in Harris County can continue after a state appeals court Wednesday quickly threw out a last-minute lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party challenging the county’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. The state GOP had filed suit Monday night asking the court to place limits on curbside voting and halt drive-thru voting.

The appellate judges said the party and a voter who filed the suit did so too late, and did not show how they specifically might be injured by the voting practices. The lawsuit was filed just hours before early voting polls opened and more than a month after the Harris County Clerk announced his plan for drive-thru voting.

“The election is currently in progress and the relators delayed filing this mandamus until over a month after learning of the actions of the Harris County Clerk’s Office,” the panel of three judges on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals wrote in their ruling dismissing the case.

A Texas Republican Party spokesperson said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court “to ensure that no illegal votes would be cast and counted in this election.” In an unrelated recent voting lawsuit, the state’s high court ruled against another voting challenge because it was filed too late, saying changes during an ongoing election could cause voter confusion.

See here for the background, and here for the 14th Court’s ruling. It should be noted that the court dismissed the petition “sua sponte”, which is the fancy Latin phrase for “on its own initiative”. In other words, the court didn’t ask for the defendants to submit a response – the petition didn’t meet the bar for having a claim to be decided. That’s a pretty strong statement.

A bit from the ruing makes it clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t just the timing. The first two issues the court addressed were the standing of the plaintiffs to bring this challenge:

To have standing under section 273.061, a party must demonstrate that it “possesses an interest in a conflict distinct from that of the general public, such that the defendant’s actions have caused the plaintiff some particular injury.” In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, orig. proceeding) (quoting Williams v. Lara, 52 S.W.3d 171, 178 (Tex. 2001)).The claimant must show a particularized injury beyond that of the general public. Id. “Our decisions have always required a plaintiff to allege some injury distinct from that sustained by the public at large.” Brown v. Todd, 53 S.W.3d 297, 302 (Tex. 2001). “No Texas court has ever recognized that a plaintiff’s status as a voter, without more, confers standing to challenge the lawfulness of governmental acts.” Id. For example, a voter lacks standing to seek the removal of an ineligible candidate from the ballot because the voter has no special interest. See, e.g., Clifton v. Walters, 308 S.W.3d 94, 99 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2010, pet. denied); Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).

Standing requires “a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court.” Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 154. Texas has adopted the federal courts’ standing doctrine to determine the constitutional jurisdiction of state courts. Id. To maintain standing, petitioners must show: (1) an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent”; (2) that the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s challenged actions; and (3) that it is “‘likely,’ as opposed to merely ‘speculative,’ and that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.’” Id. at 154–55 (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992)).

RELATORS’ FAILURE TO SHOW STANDING

Pichardo argues that he has standing to obtain mandamus relief under Election Code section 273.061 because, unless Hollins is compelled to enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting, Pichardo is at risk of having his vote canceled out by an ineligible vote. But that alleged harm is true of every member of the general public who is registered to vote. Pichardo lacks standing because he has not shown that he has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., Brown, 53 S.W.3d at 302; In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553; In re Pichardo, No. 14-20-00685-CV, 2020 WL 5950178, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 8, 2020, orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The Republican Party of Texas argues that Hollins’s alleged intent to not enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting will harm its mission and purpose of advancing limited government, lower taxes, less spending, and individual liberty and promoting compliance with state election statutes. The Republican Party of Texas lacks standing because it has not shown that it has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553. The Republican Party of Texas cites no authority that supports its standing argument.

In other words, neither the voter they dragged up to be a plaintiff, nor the Republican Party of Texas itself, can claim any injury that a court would recognize. Their complaint basically amounts to “but some people might vote in a way we don’t like”, and the court has no time for that. At least, this court had no time for it. I suppose SCOTX could do something different, but that’s always the risk. The fact that voting has in fact already started should also be a barrier to entry, but again, we’ll see.

Three minor points of note: One, the GOP was represented by our old buddy Andy Taylor – just search the archives for that name, and you’ll see why I’m laughing. Two, this ruling also cited the 2008 lawsuit brought by supporters of then-Sen. Kim Brimer in their attempt to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, before she successfully knocked Brimer out of the Senate. And three, based on that “In re Pichardo” footnote, this particular plaintiff has served that role for whichever Republican group is seeking to stop some form of voting in court before, during this cycle. Put that name on your watch list for the future, these guys get around. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

State GOP files suit to stop curbside voting in Harris County

Honesty, it feels like they’re just trolling now.

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs.

State election law has long allowed voters with medical conditions to vote curbside. After they arrive at a polling location, a ballot is brought outside to them in their vehicle by an election worker. In addition to urging qualified voters to use the curbside option this year, Harris County also opened designated “drive-thru” polling locations for all voters, where poll workers hand people a voting machine through their car window after checking their photo identification.

The state GOP’s lawsuit, filed in a state appeals court in Houston, seeks to halt the drive-thru voting program and limit curbside voting to those who have submitted sworn applications saying they qualify for it. Glenn Smith, a senior strategist with Progress Texas, said Tuesday he could find nothing in the law requiring an application to vote curbside. Texas election law instructs election officers to deliver an on-site curbside ballot if a voter is “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Unless stopped, each of these instances of illegal voting will cast a cloud over the results of the General Election,” the lawsuit states.

Chris Hollins, the Harris County Clerk, said the latest lawsuit is in line with the Republican Party “feverishly” using resources to limit people’s right to vote.

“This lawsuit is not only frivolous, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the differences between curbside voting — for voters with disabilities, including illness — and drive-thru voting, which is available for all voters who want to vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

[…]

The Republicans argue that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn’t enough under state election law to qualify for curbside voting. Their point is bolstered by a May ruling from the all-Republican state Supreme Court which said a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not a disability that qualifies Texans to vote by mail. But Texas law differentiates between mail-in ballots — which must be requested ahead of time through an application under strict qualifications, like a disability — and curbside voting, which is requested onsite.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has repeatedly said this year that those who have symptoms or signs of the new coronavirus should use curbside voting. The office has provided placards for county election officials to use at polling locations that urge curbside voting for sick people or those who can’t enter a polling place without the “likelihood of injuring your health.”

[…]

Voters must provide photo identification, then will be handed a portable voting machine in their car, according to the website. The clerk’s office notes drive-thru voting is open to all voters, as opposed to curbside voting which is applicable for those with a disability.

The lawsuit filed Monday says drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore can’t be available to all voters. The Republican Party also notes that election law states polling places must be located inside a building, and the county’s promotional video for drive-thru voting is in an outdoor parking lot.

I will admit that I have generally not distinguished between curbside and drive-through voting. I’d not given any thought to the difference, or even that there was a difference. I will point out here that this drive-through method was piloted for the primary runoffs, and formally announced as part of the county’s overall election plan in August. I will also note that Bexar County had announced their own plans for drive-though voting even earlier in August. This once again raises the question of “if you’re gonna sue about this, why is it taking you so long?”

The Chron has some more details.

In a petition filed late Monday in Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, the Texas Republican Party contended the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting, including drive-thru voting, to voters who are sick or disabled, or if voting inside the polling location “would create a likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Those provisions do not apply to the coronavirus pandemic, the party argued in its filing.

“Chris Hollins is telling all Harris County residents that they are eligible for curbside voting when he knows that is not the case,” the party said in a statement. “Any voter that does not qualify to vote curbside under narrow statutory language would be voting illegally if allowed to vote drive-through.”

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said county officials are comfortable with the legality of drive-thru voting because they do not consider it to be a form of curbside voting. The drive-thru locations, he noted, are all inside buildings, such as garages and temporary structures, which he said prevents them from being curbside under Texas law.

“We looked at this carefully before we decided to do it and feel that it’s within the boundaries of the law,” Ray said. “It’s disingenuous on their part to try to classify drive-thru as curbside, because that is not what we’re doing.”

This was filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, so I presume it’s a writ of mandamus. (I couldn’t find any filings when I searched the 14th Court website, but maybe I was just searching wrong.) I presume also that the 14th Court is under no obligation to issue a ruling in a timely manner – I’d say sitting on this one, then dismissing it as moot is the fate it deserves, but then I’m both petty and Not A Lawyer, so don’t pay too much attention to that. We all understand what this is about, and we all understand the motivation for it. The courts are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’ll go from there. Let’s not give this any more thought than that.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As expected.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chron adds some details.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: Menefee and more

The Chron endorses Christian Menefee for Harris County Attorney.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee was still celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary over longtime incumbent Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan when the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Lockdowns and social distancing left the 32-year-old civil litigation attorney with a lot of time on his hands.

He used those spare hours well. During the last several months, Menefee told the editorial board, he has researched the inner workings of the department he hopes to run. He studied the office’s organizational charts. He talked to more than 30 current employees. He reached out to the Dallas County district attorney and the Travis County attorney.

That helped give him a solid understanding of the office he seeks and what improvements need to be made, Menefee said.

“You can’t just come in with ideas,” said Menefee, a Houston native who is a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. “You need to come in with stuff that you know is going to work.”

That kind of energy, attention to detail and determination to make the county attorney office as effective as possible earn Menefee our endorsement. We also recommended him in the primary, noting his commitment to expanding the office’s environmental law section, which currently has four full-time lawyers.

In addition to the bread-and-butter work of representing elected officials, local entities and county employees, Menefee said he wants the office to bring more impact litigation to “hold polluters accountable.”

Menefee also wants the office to be a strong advocate for local control — no small feat, given the control officials in Austin have sought in recent years, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent challenges to the county on vote-by-mail applications and eviction policies.

If you listen to the interview I did with Menefee for the primary, you will definitely hear all of these themes from him. He’s got a lot of potential, and I expect big things.

Next, the Chron heads a bit north to endorse Hank Gilbert in CD01 over the hottest of messes that is Louie Gohmert.

Hank Gilbert

Ever since voters in Texas’ 1st Congressional District sent U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert to Congress in 2004 by a landslide, it’s been an open question as to how extreme, how divisive and how — there’s no other way to put it — how batty their congressman can get before he’s recalled.

If his electoral successes are any guide, Gohmert is in no danger of being held accountable for his antics, which include most recently refusing to wear a mask unless he got COVID-19 — which he promptly did. His positive diagnosis drew a worried rebuke from his own daughter on Twitter: “My father ignored medical expertise and now he has Covid,” she wrote.

Still, as congressman, Gohmert has never polled less than 68 percent. Time and again, despite a mountain of cringe-worthy examples, Gohmert has emerged stronger after Election Day.

This year, his opponent swears it will be different. “He’s never had a real challenger,” says Democrat Hank Gilbert, 60, a former rancher, high school ag teacher and two-time candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner.

We hope he’s right. The district deserves better than what it’s had these past 16 years. Heck, Congress deserves better.

Here’s my interview with Hank, who is a mensch through and through. No question, Congress and the country would be a much better place with Hank subbing in for Gohmert, but that’s on the voters, and this is a tough district. If you know someone who lives in that district, make sure they know about Hank.

Finally, the Chron endorses incumbent Rep. Mike McCaul for re-election, and while the have good things to say about Mike Siegel, they argue that “trading an accomplished and pragmatic congressman would not serve the district well”. Whatevs.

SCOTX hears mail ballot case arguments

Here we are.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county far exceeds what the state Election Code allows, the attorney general’s office argued before the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday.

In oral arguments before the high court, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the part of the Election Code requiring clerks to send applications to any registered voters who request them means the distribution of applications is limited to those voters. Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins, he warned, cannot claim powers the Election Code has not expressly granted him.

“If Hollins’s actions are allowed to proceed, it will fundamentally upset the balance of power between states and counties,” Hawkins said. “That conception of power has existed for a century.”

[…]

Susan Hays, a private attorney representing Harris County, said the purpose of the Election Code is to make voting safe and accessible to all registered Texans. Requiring applications to be sent to voters who request them is a minimum requirement, she argued, not a limit.

“A statute that says we have to give an application to someone if they ask doesn’t prohibit implicitly giving it to people because we think it’s a good management practice and we think it will make this election safe,” Hays said.

The eight justices in attendance peppered both attorneys with questions during their 20-minute arguments.

Responding to a question about whether the county’s plan would be out of step with how other parts of the state are handling mail ballots, Hays said all 254 counties should send mail ballot applications to registered voters. In an amicus brief, the Dallas County clerk argued the same.

Justice Eva Guzman asked Hays if Harris County’s plan would create more opportunities for voter fraud. Hays said it would not, noting that each ballot is reviewed by a bipartisan committee to ensure the signatures on the ballot and application match.

Justice Brett Busby asked Hawkins if the state’s position that clerks only have power explicitly granted by state law would bar them from developing new, innovative ways of providing services to customers.

“This is going to have ramifcations outside this case,” Busby said. “How do we tread that line to ensure clerks can continue to do, as they see it, good customer service?”

Hawkins said clerks would be fine so long as they are able to connect every action to a “specific grant of power” from the Legislature.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any new insights, I still think the state’s arguments are crap, but it’s not up to me. All I ask at this point is a quick decision.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

SCOTX extends stay in Harris County vote by mail case

I was set to be super outraged about this, but as you will see it’s not quite as bad as it first looked.

The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, granting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request hours earlier for the high court to step in before a different order halting the mailout was set to expire.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send applications to each of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters would confuse voters and lead to potential fraud. A state district judge rejected that argument Friday, and Paxton swiftly appealed to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

The appellate court denied Paxton’s request for an order blocking the mailout, deciding instead to speed up the trial by ordering Hollins and Paxton to submit arguments by Wednesday afternoon. Under an agreement between the state and county offices, Hollins was barred from sending out mail ballot applications until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Paxton, who noted that the appeals court “offered no assurance” it would issue a ruling by then, argued in a court filing Tuesday afternoon that the Texas Supreme Court should prevent Hollins from sending out applications once the clock strikes midnight Thursday morning. The court granted Paxton’s request, ordering Hollins not to send unsolicited applications “until further order of this court.”

The state Supreme Court already had blocked Hollins from mailing out applications to voters under 65 through a similar lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party and conservative activist Steven Hotze. However, Paxton noted, the court’s stay order will expire before the state and county agreement is up Wednesday evening.

Hollins was not immediately available for comment.

The clerk’s office already has mailed applications to voters who are 65 and older, all of whom are eligible to vote by mail under Texas law. The state election code also allows voters to cast mail ballots if they are disabled, imprisoned or out of their home county during the voting period.

Emphasis mine, and see here and here for the background. You can see the court’s order here, a statement from County Clerk Chris Hollins here, and the filings in the appeal to the 14th Court here. (You might also note that the three judges in the panel are all Dems, which may have influenced Paxton’s actions.) There should be a hearing today, and one presumes a fairly quick ruling, after which point this will go back to SCOTX and they’ll have to rule one way or the other on the actual case, not on what can happen while the case is being appealed. So as Samuel L. Jackson once said, hold onto your butts. The Trib and Reform Austin have more.

Now we wait on SCOTX

Shouldn’t have to wait too long to get a resolution to the “Harris County Clerk wanting to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters” question.

Chris Hollins

A day after a court ruled against him, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed on Saturday an order that allowed mail-in ballot applications to sent to all of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Paxton indicated in a press statement that he expects the court should rule by Monday.

“The proposed mass mailing would sow confusion because applications would go to all registered voters, regardless of whether they legally qualify to vote a mail ballot and regardless of whether they even want to vote by mail,” says a news release from Paxton’s office. “Texas law requires the clerk to send applications to voters who specifically request them.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Saturday that applications to voters under 65 are in production and will be sent out soon. His office has already sent out vote-by-mail applications to registered voters 65 and older.

“We’re disappointed that the attorney general is fighting so hard to keep information and resources out of the hands of Harris County voters, but, sadly, we aren’t at all surprised,” Hollins said. “The Harris County Clerk’s Office will continue to do everything we can to protect Texans’ right to vote, and we know that the law is on our side.”

See here for the background. Judge Sandill’s ruling very clearly addressed Paxton’s claims, so it’s really just a question of whether the Supremes want to put a thumb on the scale for Paxton or not. I keep coming back to their original ruling in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit, and I don’t know how you get to Paxton’s desired outcome without really warping the meaning of the existing law. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t do it, just that it should be clear what it would mean if they did. I don’t know what else to say.

County Clerk can send his vote by mail applications

Good.

Chris Hollins

A judge on Friday rejected Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to halt Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill denied Paxton’s request for a temporary injunction, stating that nothing in the Texas Election Code bars Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins from carrying out the plan.

Sandill was unpersuaded by the state’s argument that sending applications to voters, accompanied by eligibility rules, would lead residents to apply for mail ballots for which they do not qualify. Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram warned that this would lead to voter fraud and potential felony prosecutions of residents.

“This Court firmly believes that Harris County voters are capable of reviewing and understanding the document Mr. Hollins proposes to send and exercising their voting rights in compliance with Texas law,” Sandill wrote in his opinion.

The case now will be decided on its merits, with Hollins free to send the applications in the meantime. His spokeswoman said the mailings to voters under 65 would be sent starting Saturday.

See here for the background. The ACLU sent out a link to a copy of the ruling, which is short and straightforward. There were two claims made by the plaintiffs, that County Clerk Chris Hollins was acting ultra vires, which is the fancy Latin term for “outside his authority”, and that sending the applications could cause fraud by luring unsuspecting voters who did not qualify for the mail ballot to commit fraud. On that second point, the embedded illustration of the ballot application makes exceedingly short work of that concern:

As for the ultra vires claim, let me quote from the ruling:

The Legislature has spoken at length on the mechanisms for mail-in voting. There are no fewer than 42 Election Code provisions on the subject. See TEX. ELEC. CODE, Chs. 84, 86 & 87. In those provisions, the Legislature has made clear that in order to vote by mail a voter first “must make an application for an early voting ballot.” Id. at § 84.001. But, as to how the voter is to obtain the application, the Election Code is silent.

There is no code provision that limits an early voting clerk’s ability to send a vote by mail application to a registered voter. Section 84.012 contains no prohibitive language whatsoever, but rather, requires the early voting clerk to take affirmative action in the instance a voter does request an application to vote by mail. That the clerk must provide an application upon request does not preclude the clerk from providing an application absent a request.

Indeed, there are a number of code provisions that demonstrate the Legislature’s desire for mail voting applications to be freely disseminated. For example, section 1.010 mandates that a county clerk with whom mail voting applications are to be filed (e.g., Mr. Hollins) make the applications “readily and timely available.” Id. at § 1.010. In addition, section 84.013 requires that vote by mail applications be provided “in reasonable quantities without charge to individuals or organizations requesting them for distribution to voters.” Id. at § 84.013. Further, the Court notes that, consistent with these provisions, both the Secretary of State and the County make the application for a mail ballot readily available on their respective websites.

Against the backdrop of this statutory scheme, the Court cannot accept the State’s interpretation of section 84.012. To do so would read into the statute words that do not exist and would lead to the absurd result that any and every private individual or organization may without limit send unsolicited mail voting applications to registered voters, but that the early voting clerk, who possesses broad statutory authority to manage and conduct the election, cannot. Mr. Hollins’s contemplated conduct does not exceed his statutory authority as early voting clerk and therefore is not ultra vires.

I made pretty much the same argument, so yeah. This was a weak case, and I’d hate to have been the attorney that was forced to make it. They had to know it was a loser, but I guess once you’re all in for stamping out voter convenience, you’ve got to take it to the finish line. The state has filed its appeal, so one presumes they are hoping to get lucky with the Supreme Court.

Which brings me to the larger point that needs to be made here. As with the age discrimination claim, there is a clear and straightforward legislative solution to this. Unlike that age discrimination case, the legislative solutions go both ways. What I mean by that is that with this ruling in the books, the Republicans have a planet-sized incentive to close this gaping loophole (as they see it) in the law. If the Republicans maintain control of the House, I guarantee you – guarantee you – they will pass a bill that severely restricts the ability to send out vote by mail applications to anyone who does not expressly ask for them. One could argue, given recent legislative history, the only reason such restrictions don’t already exist is that they hadn’t thought of it before. (And to be fair, up until very recently vote by mail was very much the province of Republican candidates and campaigns. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there’s a reason why voting by mail was excluded from the voter ID law, and that reason is because at the time, voting by mail was seen as a boon to Republicans. Now that any form of convenience for voters is seen as pro-Democratic, it’s open season.)

So, either we flip the House to Democratic control, and prevent a bill like that from passing, or Republicans maintain control and voting by mail becomes that much more obstacle-laden. Maybe they will find a way to add mail ballots to the voter ID law, perhaps by requiring all mail ballots to include a notarized signature. The Republicans have made it clear what they want to do. We have one chance to stop them. The Trib has more.

Where are we with the lawsuit to stop Harris County from sending out vote by mail applications?

Thanks for asking, we had the hearing in district court yesterday.

Voting in person will be safe across Texas in this fall’s general election despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s elections director asserted in a Harris County courtroom Wednesday

Keith Ingram, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, made the statement while testifying against Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county.

“Voters who want to vote by mail, and qualify to vote by mail, they should. And voters who want to vote in person, we would encourage them to do so,” Ingram said. “It’ll be safe for them to do so, and the counties will have a good experience for the voters.”

The Attorney General’s Office called Ingram as a witness in an injunction hearing seeking to halt Hollins’s plan while the underlying case makes its way through the courts. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill made no immediate ruling on the injunction, though at times appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments.

At the heart of the case is whether Hollins would exceed his authority as county clerk by sending mail ballot applications to each voter, which Harris County never has done. In the four-hour online hearing, lawyers for the state and county described starkly different consequences of carrying out the plan.

Ingram said Harris County’s plan would confuse voters and encourage some to vote fraudulently, undermining the public’s trust in the integrity of elections. He noted that lying on a mail ballot application is a state jail felony and residents could be prosecuted well after this fall’s election.

“When something strange, or unusual happens, voters are very concerned that this is an opportunity for fraud, and when they think the other side is cheating, they tend to stay home, Ingram said. “That’s the concern about a mass mailing like this.”

Hollins said he simply is trying to help as many eligible voters cast ballots as possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many would feel safer voting by mail. The top of each application would feature a checklist explicitly explaining the eligibility rules. Hollins dismissed the state’s argument that voters would be confused as absurd.

“It would be a very bizarre and highly unlikely outcome that somehow, someone would unfold this fully, go to the very bottom, and think ‘I need to fill this out,’ without ever having looked up here,” Hollins said, pointing to a draft mailer in his hand.

See here and here for the background. You already know how I feel about this, and there’s nothing in this story to suggest that the state has improved on its weak arguments. I’m glad to see that Judge Sandill pointed out to the state that they had no objections before when Hollins sent applications to every over-65 voter in the county. There’s an edge of desperation in this lawsuit, and while one could argue it’s not the best use of the county’s money to do this, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court seems pretty clear.

Several organizations have taken action to support the County Clerk or oppose the state. The League of Women Voters of Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed an amicus brief, as HEB executive Charles Butt had previously done. The NAACP of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region filed a petition to intervene in opposition to the state, saying an injunction would harm the people they represent. Clerk Hollins’ response to Paxton is here. We should get the ruling by tomorrow, but we all know it will be appealed.

Speaking of such thing, here’s Hollins’ response to Hotze, from that ridiculous mandamus. The arguments are what you’d expect, and given the courtroom action in Houston I’d expect the Supremes to deny the writ, since there clearly is the time to litigate the matter. When they take action is of course anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

When HEB is on your side

Who could be against you?

Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week, siding with Harris County on its plan to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the November election.

In the letter, Butt argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan was permissible under the Texas Election Code.

“Clerk Hollins’s efforts to make absentee ballots widely available trusts voters, protecting those who are vulnerable from unnecessary exposure in this new Covid world in which we’re living,” Butt wrote. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

[…]

“Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus,” Butt wrote. “By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court’s opinion and the Election Code.”

Butt previously has weighed in on political debates, and he is a top contributor during election cycles. His campaign contributions cross party lines.

That letter was being quote-tweeted all over the place on Wednesday. One could look at this and furrow one’s brow at the intervention by a wealthy individual, one who does play a fair amount in Texas politics, in a court case like this. One could also shrug one’s shoulders and say that this looks an awful lot like an amicus brief, except it was released on Twitter instead. I lean towards the latter, and given the overheated and frankly harmful rhetoric being unleashed by Trump and Paxton and the like, I’m glad that Charles Butt decided to speak up and inject a little sanity into the discourse. Your mileage may vary. Reform Austin has more.

County Clerk scales back mail ballot application sendout for now

Seems like a wise tactical move.

Chris Hollins

The Harris County clerk is holding off his plan to send ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County.

County Clerk Chris Hollins said for now he is going to send ballot applications to everyone 65 and older.

Hollis added he will wait for the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to work its way through the court to see if he can send ballot applications to other people in the county.

Hollis also said he tried to discuss this with the Texas Secretary of State but a discussion did not take place. Then Paxton filed his lawsuit on Monday, according to a report from the Texas Tribune.

See here for the background. Sending an application to all the 65-and-over voters is what Clerk Hollins did for the primary runoffs, and no one raised a fuss about it. It seems clear that Hollins has the law on his side, as confirmed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in a recent chat with the Chron editorial board, but politics plays a role as well, and one could argue that turning down the heat a bit is in Hollins’ best interests. One could also argue that getting the state to do something stupid isn’t a bad idea either, but I’ll set that debate aside for now. For now, we wait for some action in the courtroom. The Chron and the Press have more.

(On a side note, Bexar County will be sending vote by mail applications to all of its 65-and-over voters as well. As I said before, this sort of thing should be the norm going forward.)

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.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

How can you vote if you currently have coronavirus?

There is one way, if it is approved.

Thousands of Harris County voters who recently have tested positive for coronavirus and now are quarantined should be allowed to vote online in the primary runoff election, County Attorney Vince Ryan argued in an emergency court filing Thursday.

The novel voting method has never been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

If approved by a state district judge, the estimated 10,000 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the July 2 deadline to apply for a mail ballot would be allowed to submit a ballot via email. Forcing infected residents to vote in person would risk “putting thousands of other voters at risk,” Ryan wrote.

“The effect of this is to leave thousands of Harris County voters with a choice: 1, violate their quarantine and risk exposing poll workers and other voters to a deadly virus, or 2, become disenfranchised and lose their constitutional right to vote,” Ryan said. “That is a choice no Texan should be forced to make.”

A hearing [was] scheduled in the 80th District Court for 4 p.m. Friday. Ryan filed the brief on behalf of County Clerk Christopher Hollins.

The Dallas County elections administrator in 2014 obtained a court order allowing residents quarantined by the Ebola outbreak to submit mail ballots via email.

The Texas Election Code also permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas.

[…]

Ryan said Harris County’s request follows COVID-19 elections guidance issued in April by Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, which said counties may want to consider seeking court orders to expand voting options for quarantined voters. A spokesman for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I admit, I did not know that this was a possible option. It makes sense, and in practical terms it’s likely that only a small number of people would actually vote in this fashion. I mean, even with record-breaking turnout in this primary runoff, we’re still going to fall short of ten percent of all registered voters in Harris County. More to the point, given that most of the people who would have voted in this election already have, we’re talking maybe two or three percent turnout among those who have not yet cast a ballot, so maybe 200 or 300 people total. I’d still take the under on that bet. But the principle is solid, and if the law allows for this, then by all means let’s do it. I assume we’ll get a quick ruling on this, I’ll keep my eyes open for confirmation of that and will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: And the answer is no.

A state district judge on Friday denied a request by Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins to allow thousands of voters who recently tested positive for coronavirus, and now are quarantined, to vote online in the primary runoff election.

The novel voting method never has been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Judge Larry Weiman, however, said he shared concerns raised by the Harris County Republican Party that online voting was not secure. Weiman, a Democrat, also said at the emergency telephone hearing that the county clerk had not produced an example of a voter being disenfranchised by exposure to coronavirus.

“The plaintiff hasn’t shown any injured party,” Weiman said.

[…]

The Harris County Republican Party and Texas Attorney General’s office argued against the plan. Assistant Attorney General Anne Mackin said Hollins’ proposal amounted to a “rewrite of the Texas Election Code,” which already provides ill voters a method to vote by mail after missing the application deadline, so long as they are able to physically produce a doctor’s note.

Hollins sought to have that requirement waived in favor of an emailed statement certifying a voter has been exposed to COVID, saying infected residents or members of their household risk infecting county employees by delivering a form to a public building.

“It’s inappropriate to substitute a new process,” Mackin said.

The Election Code permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas. Attorney and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, and attorney Kevin Fulton argued on behalf of the Republicans that method requires service members to use secure email addresses which allow elections administrators to verify their identities.

Weiman said he shared these concerns about security. He invited the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Election Code if lawmakers feel they are needed.

It was a nice idea while it lasted, but there would have been issues. The fact that there were no named voters asking for this is a legitimate point. It would have been very nice to be able to test something like this in a low-stakes primary runoff, in case it’s needed in November, but I think we probably do need to have the Lege address some issues first. There are ways to make this process secure, none of which I suspect would have been available now, and the need for a written-on-paper doctor’s note is obviously archaic. If this experience can serve as a template for updating the relevant bits of the election code, it will still have been a useful exercise.