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Harris County Clerk

More election innovation, please

Some good stuff here:

There’s a lot to like in there and in the embedded letter he wrote to Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff, to formalize these ideas. Several of them have been done or have been proposed for Harris County, including sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter 65 and over, having a mega-voting location, expanding early voting hours during the EV period, and having more curbside voting options. Some ideas are new, or at least new to Harris County, such as having a 24-hour early voting location, having more mail ballot dropoff locations, and mailing “a Notice of Election, Sample Ballot, and information on voting safely during COVID-19 to every registered voter” in the county. I love the creativity, the commitment to making voting easier, and especially since this is coming from a County Commissioner, the willingness to put up the money to make it happen. I hope County Clerk Chris Hollins and Harris County Commissioners Court are paying attention.

The other point I would make here is that we could keep doing some or all of these things in future elections, when there will hopefully not be a pandemic to force the issue, for the simple reason that they do in fact make voting easier. I mean, that’s how it should be.

Of course, a key assumption underpinning all this is that there will be enough people to work the elections. Here’s another idea I like for that:

It turns out that this is already legal and open to students 16 years old and older, so it just needs to be better known. Pass it on to the students you know.

For those of us who don’t need a principal’s permission, here’s what we can do:

The Harris County Clerk’s Office is looking for election workers to staff more than 800 voting centers that will be open for the November 3, 2020 General Election. Election workers are also needed three weeks prior to the election to work at approximately 100 voting centers during the Early Voting period, October 13-30.

“We expect a high turnout for the upcoming general election. Early predictions indicate that more than 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County will cast a ballot in November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We need more than 1,000 election workers for the Early Voting period – which has been extended to three weeks – and more than 8,000 election workers for Election Day. I highly encourage all civic-minded residents of Harris County to consider serving our communities as election workers.”

To serve as an election worker, you must be a registered voter in Harris County, have transportation to and from the polling location, and be able to attend training. Bilingual election workers are needed and encouraged to apply. Students 16 years of age and older can apply to work as student clerks. All of these positions are paid.

“We will take every possible measure to keep voters and election workers safe, from keeping voting centers sanitized, to enforcing social distancing, to providing personal protective equipment to all election workers and voters,” said Clerk Hollins.

If you are interested in becoming an election worker, click here to apply online or call 713.755.6965.

This is all-hands-on-deck time. If you can do this, or know someone who can, please take action. ABC-13 has more.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

Abbott officially extends early voting for November

It’s just by a week, but at least the announcement has been made early.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday extended the early voting period for the November election by six days, citing continued challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Early voting for the Nov. 3 election will now begin Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19. The end date remains Oct. 30.

The extension of the early voting period is not a surprise. During a TV interview in late May, Abbott said he would add more time to the early voting period for the November election — as he did for the primary runoff election earlier this month — but did not elaborate.

Last week, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins asked Abbott to provide more details so that election officials could have enough time to prepare. In a letter to the governor, Hollins requested that Abbott move the start date to Oct. 13 at the latest.

[…]

But the Monday announcement from the governor gave eligible mail-in voters more time to turn in their completed ballots in person if they would like to do so. Current law allows those voters to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s latest move expands that option to the entire early voting period.

Democrats said Abbott’s latest moves were still not enough to create a safer environment for voting in November.

“Abbott’s decision to extend early voting by six days is exactly like his COVID-19 response: the bare minimum and not fully thought through,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. I certainly would have preferred a second extra week of early voting, but this is what we’re gonna get. Note that the extra week actually starts on Tuesday, because Monday the 12th is a holiday (Columbus Day), and early voting doesn’t happen on national holidays because some buildings that are used for early voting are closed.

The extra days for early voting will help, not as much as it could have, but it will help. And god knows, we really better be in an improved position with the virus by October, or we’ll have a whole lot of other big problems to be concerned with. I would expect that election administrators will try to extend voting hours where possible, and hopefully will work to have as many locations open as possible. The restriction on mobile voting sites still sucks and was an otherwise pointless attack on voting access, but there remains unresolved litigation about that, so who knows. The ability to drop off mail ballots in person any time during early voting (confession: I hadn’t known about the prior restriction on that) is good, and I’ll bet Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sets up numerous dropoff locations.

This is the situation we have, and we have to make the best of it. Apply for a mail ballot if you’re 65 or older or if you believe you meet the disability requirement. Plan when and where you will vote, to try to avoid using the busier sites. Volunteer now to work the election if you can. Don’t be the jerk who refuses to wear a mask when voting. And keep raising hell about the overall response to the pandemic, because getting the infection rate down is by far our best friend. You can read Chris Hollins’ press release in response to this announcement here.

Interview with Teneshia Hudspeth

Teneshia Hudspeth

As you know, HCDP precinct chairs will be picking a nominee for Harris County Clerk, to run for Diane Trautman’s unexpired term. The leading candidate for this is Teneshia Hudspeth, who has worked in the Clerk’s office for fifteen years and has been a top lieutenant in the elections division. I’ve interacted with Teneshia multiple times over the years, and I plan to vote for her in my role as precinct chair. With the selection process coming up on August 15, I wanted to take the opportunity to interview her, so my fellow precinct chairs and everyone who’ll get to vote for her in November can get to know her a little better. The job of County Clerk will be different when she takes office thanks to the adoption of an elections administrator by Commissioners Court, and that made this interview a little weird for both of us, since my questions to Clerk candidates have usually been about election matters, and right now we don’t know exactly what that will mean going forward. But we persevered, and you can hear the result here:

You can review the Q&As I did with the HCDE candidates as well:

Jose Rivera
David Brown
Obes Nwabara

County Clerk touts curbside voting, asks for more early voting

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Friday, July 10, the last day of Early Voting during the July Primary Runoff Elections, the Harris County Clerk’s Office piloted Drive-Thru Voting as an additional option for voters to cast their ballot safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time in Texas history that an elections office held Drive-Thru Voting, where many voters at a time could cast their ballot without leaving the comfort and safety of their car.

“My number one priority is to keep voters and poll workers safe,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “The feedback we received from the Drive-Thru Voting pilot proves that voters felt safe exercising their right to vote and that it was an easy and efficient alternative to going inside a voting center. We are exploring options to expand this program for the November General Election at select locations as another method of voting during COVID-19.”

Voters raved about the experience. Of the 200 voters who voted at the Drive-Thru Voting site, 141 completed an optional survey reviewing the new service. Some wrote that Drive-Thru Voting was “easy to use” and others cited how the service “made voters feel safe.” One respondent even wrote that it was their “best voting experience EVER!”

Voters would overwhelmingly use the service again and recommend it to others. When asked on a scale of 0 through 10, with 10 being extremely likely, whether they would consider using the same service if it is provided again in the future, voters on average gave a score of 9.70. On the same scale, when asked whether they would recommend Drive-Thru Voting to another voter, voters on average gave a score of 9.66.

Fear of exposure to COVID-19 was the top reason for using Drive-Thru Voting. When asked why voters chose to vote using the Drive-Thru Voting service as opposed to the traditional walk-in voting method, 82 (58%) cited worries about health and safety in the midst of the pandemic. Other frequently mentioned reasons included the convenience of the service and pure curiosity about the experience of Drive-Thru Voting.

Drive-Thru Voting was piloted from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM on Friday, July 10th, 2020, at Houston Community College – West Loop.

There’s a video at the link if you want to see it for yourself. Curbside has been done in some other locations, and it was specifically discussed as an option, in a much larger and more ambitious context, in this Chron story from April, by poli sci professor Bob Stein. There are limiting factors to doing this – the equipment is difficult to move, it’s labor intensive, and those combine to make the process slow things down for other voters, at least when this is done on an ad hoc basis. Done like this, where there’s a set number of designated locations for curbside might be more feasible, depending on how many people want to use it. I don’t want to come off like Debbie Downer here, this is a great example of outside-the-box thinking, it’s just that there are challenges that would need to be addressed to do this at anything approaching scale.

One thing that everyone would agree worked well for the July runoffs was expanded early voting. Hollins also sent a letter to Greg Abbott to remind him that he promised us more early voting in November as well.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the early voting period for the November general election to ensure residents can cast ballots safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor Wednesday, Hollins asked for at least one additional week of balloting, and urged Abbott to set a schedule by the end of July. Early voting is scheduled to begin Oct. 19; Election Day is Nov. 3.

“It is crucial that elections officials and voters know the amount of time early voting will take place so that the many required complicated elections plans may be undertaken,” Hollins wrote. “Without that information, full planning and preparation for this important election cannot be undertaken.”

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. Hollins noted that Abbott added extra days of early voting during the July primary runoffs, which were rescheduled from May because of the pandemic.

See here for your reminder about Abbott’s promise, and here for a copy of Hollins’ letter, which footnotes the Texas Tribune story that reported on Abbott’s extended early voting promise. I’d like to see early voting extended by two weeks, starting on October 5, but I’ll settle for one is that’s all Abbott is willing to give. It’s the best way – well, the second best way, after expanded voting by mail, which we’re not going to get – to keep the voters safe. Hollins is right, the sooner Abbott makes good on his promise, the better.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

Today is Primary Runoff Day

Last chance to vote for your party’s nominees. From the inbox:

Today, Tuesday, July 14th, is Election Day for the July 2020 Primary Runoff Elections.Voters can cast their ballots anytime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at any of the 109 voting centers throughout Harris County. For the nearest voting location and estimated wait times go to HarrisVotes.com/WaitTimes. A total of 154,313 voters cast their ballots during the ten-day Early Voting period that concluded on Friday, July 10th.

“These are challenging times for all of us, but I want to encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “This runoff is a critical part of the election process, because it will determine which candidates go on to represent their parties in the General Election in November.”

To protect voters and election workers from COVID-19, all voting centers have been set up to allow for social distancing.  Poll workers have been provided with personal protective equipment including gloves, face masks, and shields. Sanitizing stations are set up at all polling sites, and voters are being provided with finger covers to use while voting. Additional face masks are available for voters who do not have one. Voters exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 can vote curbside to avoid entering the polling center.

To cast a ballot, you must be registered to vote and have one of the following forms of ID:

  • Texas Driver License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS);
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate (EIC) issued by DPS;
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS;
  • Texas License to Carry a Handgun (LTC) issued by DPS;
  • U.S. Military ID Card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. Passport.

Except for the U.S. citizenship certificate, the form of identification you use must be current or have expired no more than four years before being presented at the polls. If you don’t have any of these to use for identification, you can (1) sign a sworn statement explaining why you don’t have those IDs and (2) bring one of the following:

  • Valid voter registration certificate;
  • Certified birth certificate;
  • Current utility bill;
  • Government check;
  • Pay stub or bank statement that includes your name and address; or
  • Copy of or original government document with your name and an address (original required if it contains a photograph).

To expedite your time at the polls, go to HarrisVotes.com to print your personal sample ballot, make your selections, and take it with you when you go vote. If you start the voting process and think you have received the wrong ballot, make sure you let an election official know immediately—before casting your vote.

For more election information, visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also from the inbox, a list of places you can drop off your mail ballot if you didn’t receive it in time to put it in the mail. This is the first time in recent history that there has been more than a single drop-off location in Harris County, as the release says, which is cool. The 11 locations listed there are open 7 to 7, same as the period for voting.

Polling locations can be found here. As a reminder, you can vote at any of these locations. My guess is that the large majority of votes have already been cast for this runoff, so the lines should not be too bad. Do check the wait times at whatever location you’re looking at before heading out, though. And for crying out loud, bring a mask to wear. It’s precisely that mask wearing was not mandated for polling places that has caused some problems in other counties.

A lack of workers willing to run polling sites as Texas continues to report record coronavirus infections is forcing election officials in two major counties to scale back plans for the July 14 primary runoff elections.

Citing a drop-off spurred by fear of the virus, Bexar County, the state’s fourth largest, is expected to close at least eight of its planned 226 voting locations for next Tuesday, according to County Judge Nelson Wolff.

In Tarrant County, the third largest, election officials learned Thursday that the local Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to shutter two of 173 sites planned for election day voting after the parties were unable to find election judges to run the polling places.

Although poll workers are generally being provided with protective gear, Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks when they show up at polling locations is driving some poll workers away, Wolff said.

“There is protection for them in terms of what they try to do, but anybody can walk in without a mask,” Wolff said Wednesday evening during his daily coronavirus-related briefing. “The governor did not cover elections, and so they don’t want to work. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.”

For this election, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. There should be plenty of other locations, most people have probably already voted, and turnout is fairly minimal, though it’s been higher than usual for a primary runoff. The fear, and the bigger picture, is what might happen in November. All signs point to record-breaking turnout this fall, and the last thing we’ll need for that is a scramble for poll workers. I appreciate that Greg Abbott extended early voting for this runoff – I think it made a positive difference – and I believe that will be in play for November. But I refuse to accept that anyone who doesn’t have a valid health reason to not wear a mask should have their personal preferences prioritized over the health and safety of poll workers. The mask mandate needs to extend to the polling places. We’re not taking this seriously enough otherwise.

I’ll have results for you tomorrow, and whatever thoughts I can muster afterward. I’ll look at the data when it’s available. Now go vote if you haven’t already.

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.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day One: People seem to like this vote by mail thing

Big surprise, am I right?

Harris County voters cast more than 51,000 ballots Monday in the primary runoffs, an eye-popping total that exceeded turnout for entire runoff elections in some recent years.

Combined with a robust in-person turnout, voters had returned more than 43,000 mail ballots by Monday, the first day of early voting. The turnout nearly doubled the number of votes recorded on the first day of early voting in 2016, the most recent presidential election year. It also eclipsed turnout from the 2018 runoffs, when more than 34,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting.

The surge in voting was largely driven by voters in the Democratic primary, who accounted for 63 percent of the early runoff ballots Monday. And it came weeks after interim County Clerk Chris Hollins sent mail ballot applications to every voter who is 65 and older, which he said was aimed at keeping older voters “safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home.”

Even with concerns about a recent local spike in COVID-19 cases, however, in-person turnout outpaced that of recent election cycles as well. A total of 5,334 Democrats and 1,762 Republicans cast ballots at the county’s 57 polling sites Monday. That is up from the 2,963 recorded the first day of early voting in the 2016 primary runoffs and 4,564 during the midterms.

[…]

The uptick in turnout likley stems from a combination of people paying an unusual amount of attention to politics given their extra free time at home during the pandemic, and a heated political moment fueled by the virus and recent upheaval from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said Houston political analyst Nancy Sims.

“People are at home and they’re paying more attention. They’re not as active and distracted as they normally would be, so you’re seeing a little more interest,” she said. “And it’s just a much more intense year to pay attention to elections. The combination of the protests and covid have made people tune in and become more aware.”

Hollins’ move to send ballots to the roughly 377,000 Harris County voters who are 65 and older — about 16 percent of the voter roll — also helps explain the surge, Sims said. Demand for absentee ballots has increased as well, with about 122,000 ballot requests for the runoffs, compared to 51,065 such requests for the 2016 primary runoffs and 67,735 for this year’s March primary. About 95 percent of the 122,000 mail ballot requests have come from voters who are 65 and older, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

The comparison between the 2020 runoffs and prior elections is skewed by a number of factors. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott delayed the runoff from its original May 26 date until July 14, and doubled the number of early voting days from five to 10.

You can find the Day One early voting report here. As noted, I will generally be a day behind on these, so please bear with me. I’m not sure yet what kind of comparisons I’m going to provide for this, because primary runoff turnout can be so variable and doesn’t really tell you all that much, but I will do this to start off. Here’s a look at the share of the total vote that mail ballots were, in the March primary and now in the runoffs:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  11,571    6,819  18,390    62.9%
R primary  12,890    5,411  18,301    70.4%

D runoff   27,015    5,314  32,349    83.5%
R runoff   16,308    1,762  18,070    90.2%

So, in each case Dems have returned more mail ballots – and as the story notes, there are far more mail ballots left for Dems to return – but as a share of total ballots, Republicans are so far much more dependent on them. Make of that what you will. A statement from the Harris County Clerk is here, and the Texas Standard has more.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

The county races in which the precinct chairs get to pick the nominees

There are two Harris County races on the ballot this year – one that was always going to be there, and one that was unexpected – in which Democratic precinct chairs will have the task of picking the nominees. As you know, that group includes me, and we’ll be doing it on August 15, shortly before the deadline to finalize the ballot. Let me tell you what I now know about the people who have expressed interest in these races.

Teneshia Hudspeth

First up is Harris County Clerk, the race we didn’t expect to have on our ballot this year. As you know, Diane Trautman resigned in May for health reasons, and Chris Hollins was sworn in as an interim Clerk after being appointed by Commissioners Court. Trautman’s term ends in 2022, however, so someone will have to run in November to complete her term, and Hollins will not be running for the job. Two people so far have emerged for the position. One is Gayle Mitchell, who lost in the 2014 primary to Ann Harris Bennett for the County Clerk nomination. I saw her post about this on Facebook, but can’t find that post any more. She’s a nice lady – you can listen to the interview I did with her here – but I don’t have much more to say about her. I’ve not seen or heard anything from her since the 2014 primary.

On Monday this week, Jasper Scherer wrote on Twitter that Teneshia Hudspeth, the current chief deputy clerk, has announced her intention to run for the position; Marc Campos had previously noted that she had filed a designation of Treasurer. You can see her press release, sent on Tuesday, here. Hudspeth immediately drew support from Sen. Borris Miles, Council Member Tiffany Thomas, and apparently former Clerk Trautman, if I’m reading her press release correctly. I can imagine one or two people who could jump into this race that I’d have to seriously consider, but barring that possibility I fully expect to support Teneshia’s nomination. She’ll do a great job.

(UPDATE: Trautman has since sent out an email, which I received, endorsing Teneshia Hudpseth’s candidacy.)

The other race is for HCDE Trustee At Large, Position 7, the one where Andrea Duhon, who was appointed to fill out Josh Flynn’s term in Position 4 but was already on the ballot there, won outright in March. Despite my belief that she could not withdraw from the November race, apparently she could because here we are picking a replacement nominee. (See, this is why I always remind you that I Am Not A Lawyer.) I am aware of four people competing for this slot:

David Brown and Obes Nwabara, who also ran in the March primary and finished behind Duhon.

Sonja Marrett, whose candidacy was noted to me by Andrea Duhon, who has endorsed her.

Jose Rivera, husband of former Justice of the Peace candidate Tanya Makany-Rivera, about whom Stace wrote on Monday.

I had a chance to talk to Rivera over the weekend. I’m pretty sure I had a brief conversation with David Brown during the primary campaign, but that was eight million years ago, so who can remember. I do not believe I have spoken to Nwabara yet, and I do know that I have not spoken to Marrett. I do not at this time have a preferred candidate for this position. Honestly, they all look well-qualified.

I will probably do an interview with Teneshia Hudspeth after the runoff. I don’t know that I’ll have time to talk to the four HCDE candidates, but I may write up a Q&A for them. If you have any insight as to these folks, I’ll be glad to hear it. And now you know everything I know about these two races.

The plan for the runoffs

Early voting for the primary runoffs starts in less than two weeks. Here’s what to expect.

Chris Hollins

Interim Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins is hoping to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor in the chaotic March primary election for July’s runoff balloting through a series of improvements he announced Monday.

Hollins said he would allocate polling machines to locations based on turnout, extend voting hours and improve a website showing wait times at polling places.

“This office will do everything it can to give every Harris County voter an equal say at the ballot box,” Hollins said.

The clerk’s office announced a 23-point plan Monday to ensure the July 14 primary runoff and November general elections are “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”

The runoff features 19 races between both parties, seeking to nominate candidates for seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature, well as such local posts as county commissioner, constables and state district judges. Early voting begins June 29.

[…]

Hollins, who said his team is “learning from the past,” said he has increased the number of voting machines. The clerk’s office also will open more polling sites for the runoff, 57 for early voting and 112 on Election Day.

Historical patterns suggest turnout is likely to drop significantly for next month’s runoff, especially among Democrats, who had a contested presidential primary on the March ballot. In 2016, the last contested presidential primary, Democratic turnout dropped 87 percent between the primary and primary runoff.

Yes, but as we’ve discussed before, context matters. There will be significant dropoff, no doubt about it, but the contested Senate primary runoff suggests that the floor for statewide turnout is higher than usual. Prepare for there to be more people than usual for a primary runoff, that’s my advice. Of course, some higher percentage of that turnout may come from mail ballots.

You can see the Clerk’s S.A.F.E initiatives here. Protecting the poll workers was given a high priority, as it should. The Clerk’s office says they’re doing well in recruiting poll workers for November, which will be the real test. Early voting starts June 29, and you can find all the locations here. Note that some are new, and some have changed, so be sure you check before you head out. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

Christopher Hollins on Monday became the third Harris County clerk in three years, appointed to the post after the incumbent, Diane Trautman, resigned after 17 months because of unspecified health concerns.

He has pledged to hold the job only in an interim role, avoiding the potential distraction of running a campaign this fall. Still, the 33-year-old lawyer faces a difficult task in running the July primary runoff and November general elections — the latter likely to be the highest-turnout contest in county history — during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hollins said he grasps the scope of the challenge and is up to the task. Though he has no experience in elections administration and has never run for office, he said his background in government consulting will serve him well in his new role.

“Elections already are a really large task under normal circumstances,” he said. “And you add to that the concerns and complications that come with a global pandemic, and we have this massive undertaking ahead of us to make sure all the residents of Harris County are able to vote safely, conveniently, and with the confidence their vote is going to be counted.”

See here and here for the background. I doubt he’ll make any major changes in the short time he’ll have in the position – he’s retained Trautman’s elections staffers, which is good to hear – but I’m sure he’ll have a few ideas to implement. He also has to deal with the vote by mail issue:

Hollins said he lacks expertise in Texas election law, and will defer to the county attorney on mail voting. Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the county will let voters choose whether they qualify for a mail ballot.

“It’s up to the voter to decide,” Ray said Monday. “We’re not going to require any proof. We’re not going to require any explanation.”

This is consistent with the State Supreme Court ruling. The federal cases may change things, but for now this is where we are. If Chris Hollins can be a steady hand on the till for the next seven months, that will be plenty. I wish him all the best of luck.

Have you missed having Stan Stanart to kick around?

Well then, I have good news for you.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart will run again for his old job, he confirmed Wednesday, joining two other Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the November special election.

Incumbent clerk Diane Trautman, who defeated Stanart in 2018, announced she would resign May 31 because of undisclosed health concerns.

The Democratic and Republican parties must nominate candidates to fill the remaining two years of her term.

“I’ve got eight years’ experience, and the name ID necessary to win in November,” Stanart said in a phone call. “I’m calling precinct chairs and doing very well asking for their endorsement.”

Stanart’s announcement Wednesday was the result of a mix-up; he said he thought he was talking to a Harris County Republican Party precinct chair when a Houston Chronicle reporter called him. He said he had planned to go public with his candidacy next week.

The other Republican candidates to date are former Houston city councilman Bert Keller and former Harris County judicial candidate Michelle Fraga.

Emphasis mine. We’ve all missed that Stan Stanart touch around here, haven’t we? Not to mention the glorious headshot. I feel like he missed his calling as a spokesman for BrylCreem, but we must look forward from here.

Anyway. As the story notes, no Dems have publicly announced their interest in the nomination as yet. I expect Teneshia Hudspeth to throw her hat in the ring, but as yet I’ve heard nothing. I presume we’ll know more by the time of the next CEC meeting.

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed an attorney and Texas Democratic Party official as interim county clerk.

Christopher Hollins, vice finance chairman for the state party, will serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. Incumbent Diane Trautman, who was elected in 2018, announced May 9 she would step down because of health issues.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve Hollins. Five public speakers urged court members to choose Teneshia Hudspeth, Trautman’s chief deputy. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Hollins’ pledge to serve only on an interim basis factored in their decision.

Hollins was selected after 10 p.m., more than 12 hours after Commissioners Court convened, and was unavailable for comment.

He previously worked as a senior manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and intern at Goldman Sachs and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama administration, according to his personal website. He has never held elected office.

See here for the background. You can find Hollins’ Twitter here and his bio here. He released a statement later last night here, and the County Clerk’s office released one here. From skimming Facebook, the folks I read seem to be positive about him and his appointment. Clearly, the Commissioners wanted the Clerk to focus entirely on running the election and not running for their own election. That is certainly a reasonable position to take, and it means that we precinct chairs will get to pick a candidate of our choice. Fine by me.

Also mentioned in the story was Commissioner Ellis’ proposal about an appointed elections administrator, which was discussed but no action was taken. I saw somewhere that the Harris County Republican Party Chair was opposed to the idea, which is his right. My guess is that this is the end of it, but you never know. Campos, Stace, and The Texas Signal have more.

Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

On picking a new County Clerk

Stace has some thoughts.

Diane Trautman

I’m of the opinion that the Democratic majority on the Commissioner’s Court should make a strong appointment of someone who will be the incumbent, making it clear that there is no need for a possible free-for-all at the precinct chair level.

We elected our County Judge and our Commissioners, while most of us cannot even find a link on the Party website to find our own precinct chair so that we can lobby for whom we want them to vote. Either process is hardly democratic as the voters are left out of the process. I’d rather go with whom our top leaders choose and have the precinct chairs basically ratify it so we can move forward. Wishful thinking? Maybe.

Some may opine that appointing as interim one of the professionals already in the County Clerk’s office to run the 2020 election and be a placeholder while allowing a candidate chosen by the precinct chairs to run full-time is the solution. And that’s a good argument. But I think we should have a candidate who can show that they can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously. I think it’s more of a confidence builder for us voters when we see that our candidates can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Either way, we’ll see what happens. I already see suggestions on my Facebook feeds about who should run and about diversity on the ballot. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but these things can take a turn for the ugly real quick. And that’s another reason why I’d like to see the Judge and Commissioners lead on this one.

See here for the background. As a precinct chair who will be among those lucky duckies that gets to put a nominee on the ballot for 2020, let me say that I agree with Stace’s position that we should want a candidate who “can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously”. I hope to have a better feel for this once people start throwing their hats into the ring, but I agree that a Clerk who can plan for and run an election well and who is also able to tell Ken Paxton to get stuffed while giving clear direction on these matters to the Court, the County Attorney, and the government relations crew at the county, is someone I want to see in that job.

How we get there is of less importance. If Commissioners Court – specifically, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia; I don’t expect either of the other two to provide any productive input but will hear it out if they do – says that they just want someone who can carry out the necessary electoral duties for 2020 and leave the politics up to the political people, that’s fine by me. If instead they make a strong statement about wanting the same kind of qualities as discussed here in the next Clerk and appoint someone they believe embodies those qualities, I will be more than happy to endorse that selection for the November ballot, if I agree that they got it right. I’m happy to be led by them on this matter, as long as they do lead us in the right direction. I reserve the right as part of the body that makes this selection to maintain my own counsel.

To be sure, this kind of process can get ugly in a hurry. This may be the best chance any Democrat has to win one of these offices now that there are no more Republicans to oust and we have to fight among ourselves to win. Having the Democratic members of Commissioners Court come out in unison behind a well-qualified candidate that they would like to continue working with after this November would make this a lot easier. We’ll see what they decide to do.

Meanwhile, Campos has one piece of advice:

The Commissioners Court will pick an interim County Clerk and sometime this summer the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee will select a nominee to place on the November ballot. The Commissioners aren’t going to listen to Commentary, but I hope they pick a female. If they pick a male and the male ends up getting the Executive Committee’s nod, he will win this November but get knocked off in the 2022 Democratic Party Primary by a female sure enough. Dudes need not apply.

For sure, that can happen. I will just say, 2022 will be its own election, with a different context and likely smaller turnout due to the lack of a Presidential race. It’s certainly possible that the robust candidate we hope to pick this year will get knocked off in 2022 by someone no one has heard of today. I will just say that we are not completely powerless to prevent such an outcome – I’ve been talking about the need to do a better job of promoting quality candidates at the statewide level for a couple of cycles now, following recent debacles in various downballot low-profile primaries. The same prescription holds true here, with a combination of financial support to allow a visible campaign and visible support from the elected leaders who have as much of a vested interest in having the best person possible to run elections as the rest of us do. Pick the best possible person, then support that person going forward. It’s not that complicated.

Those are my thoughts at this time. Feel free to tell me whose name you are hearing for the job and how you think I should approach this when the precinct chairs get together (virtually, I assume) to formalize it.

A poll of poll workers

A bit of good news, and a bit of a warning, here.

Harris County poll workers seem willing to participate in this fall’s presidential election, even amid the pandemic, but voters are more reluctant, according to results from a recent Rice University survey.

Poll workers here — regardless of party affiliation — were game to show up if conditions are safe enough. However, registered voters across the political spectrum were more reluctant about in-person voting even with safeguards in place, according to a Rice University study conducted between March 27 and May 4.

“What was surprising to us was how many poll workers were committed to working the polls with the caveat that they wanted protective gear, Plexiglass screens and Q-tips (to cast votes on machines). They wanted to do in-person voting with protection,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor who ran the survey funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Initiative with colleagues from the university’s psychology, anthropology and computer science departments.

[…]

Nearly 80 percent of poll workers said they were likely to help out in November at sites that observed social distancing guidelines and provided personal protective equipment. Poll staffers were were less enthusiastic about outdoor or drive-thru voting scenarios, according to the Rice findings. Many election workers said they relied on the seasonal income.

Voters’ responses lined up more predictably based on their age, party and gender. Democrats, women and people over 65 opted for potential remote voting — drive-thru, drop-off, mail-in or online options. Republicans, men and voters under under 65 were more willing to cast ballots in person.

More than 30 percent of Democrats said were unlikely to vote in person with nothing but social distancing to protect them, versus 9 percent of Republicans. A fourth of women voters were reluctant to vote in person, compared to 14 percent of men. Among voters over 65, who are at greater risk if exposed to the virus, 27 percent said they probably wouldn’t vote even with protections in place; whereas, 18 percent of voters under 65 said they were averse to voting under those circumstances.

You can see a copy of the poll report here. As the story notes, the Harris County Clerk is already gearing up for more mail ballots and other protective measures for the July and November elections. The challenge may be a little greater now with the forthcoming resignation of County Clerk Diane Trautman, but that shouldn’t complicate things too much. Given the concerns about poll workers, most of whom are over 60, I’m pleasantly surprised to see their willingness to work this election. That says a lot both about their dedication, and their faith that the county will do a good job of making their job as safe as possible.

The partisan split in willingness to vote in person is a bit alarming, but let’s keep three things in mind. One is that the last picture everyone has of voting is the fiasco in Wisconsin, which I daresay has people justifiably spooked. I feel reasonably confident that election officials in the state do not want their county to be the poster child for that kind of experience in November, so I have faith there will be plenty done to ameliorate the concerns. I hope that the July primary runoffs will help alleviate some worry as well. Two, that cohort of people who are most reluctant about voting in person are the people who absolutely and without question already have the right to vote by mail, and that’s the voters who are 65 or older. The HCDP has been quite good at getting mail ballots out to their voters in recent elections, and I feel confident they’re up to that task for this year as well. I would also expect there to be a lot of messaging to voters, from the county and from parties and candidates, about voting by mail. And three, we still may get a much broader vote by mail program for the state, in one of the lawsuits that have been filed by the TDP or the one filed by younger voters on federal age discrimination claims. We now know more about where people are for this election. We just need to act on it.

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to resign

This was unexpected, to say the least.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman will resign May 31 due to health concerns, she said Saturday afternoon.

Trautman, 70, steps down just 16 months into her first term. She defeated incumbent clerk Stan Stanart in 2018.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties,” Trautman said in a statement. She declined to answer questions.

Commissioners Court will appoint an interim clerk to serve until November, when a new clerk is elected. The Democratic and Republican parties will each put forth a nominee.

During her brief tenure, Trautman’s signature success was the implementation of county voting centers, which for the first time allowed residents to visit any polling place on Election Day. County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised that effort and Trautman’s dedication to the job.

“Dr. Trautman embodies the spirit of the community she has served,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In her brief time as County Clerk, Dr. Trautman has fought to make it easier for citizens to participate in elections and make their voices heard.”

You can see a copy of her press release, which hit my mailbox at 6 PM last night, here. I’m still a little stunned, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if she will be just the first in line to step down over health and safety concerns. Elected officials tend to be older, and we have seen multiple stories of them having come down with COVID-19. A quick google search turned up three examples of state representatives who have died as a result of the disease. In that regard, it’s honestly a little surprising we haven’t seen more elected officials do the same.

As her resignation is official on May 31, I assume there will be some kind of application process for the interim Clerk. Whoever that is will have to continue the preparations for more mail ballots as well as making in-person voting as safe as possible, both for the voters and the poll workers. No pressure, right? I presume the nominee to replace her on the November ballot will be picked by the precinct chairs, as we did with Commissioner Ellis and the three judges in 2016. That will add a level of excitement to the next CEC meeting, which is already going to be a big deal since the March one was postponed. I’m sure I’ll begin hearing from hopefuls in short order. I do not envy whoever it is at the HCDP who will be tasked with organizing this meeting, which I’m going to guess will have to be done remotely, unless we all somehow feel confident about packing several hundred mostly older folks into the IBEW hall one day next month. This is going to be all kinds of fun. We’ll get it done one way or another. In the meantime, my thanks to Diane Trautman for her service, and my best wishes for a healthy post-County Clerk life.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

One other issue to contend with:

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

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

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

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

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trautman apologizes for the long lines

A very good start.

Diane Trautman

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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


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

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

Legislative hearings on those long lines coming

More scrutiny.

After excessive voting lines on Super Tuesday forced Texans to wait for up to six hours to vote, state lawmakers are directing their attention toward challenges voters faced in trying to cast a ballot for the presidential primary election.

The Mexican American Legislative Caucus on Thursday announced it would hold a joint hearing this month with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and another nonpartisan caucus to hear from election officials, experts and voters affected by long lines and other issues at the polls.

“Texas must quickly fix the problems encountered by voters during Primary Election Day so that we do not see a repeat of these failures during the November General Election,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, the Dallas Democrat who chairs MALC, said in a statement. “We received reports of limited polling locations, workers and machines, ridiculously long lines, equipment malfunctions and elections website failures.”

You know what I think. I’m in favor of anything that will lead to more transparency and and honest assessment of what happened and what can be done about it. It’s entirely possible that I’m way off base in my perspective and that there were a lot of things happening on Tuesday that I don’t know about. Well fine then, let’s hear what those things were so we can figure out how to fix them. Let’s hear from the people who were affected, let’s hear from the people who advocate for those people, and let’s hear from the people whose job it is to put on an election that doesn’t require this kind of endurance from anyone. You can’t fix a problem until you diagnose it and understand its root causes. Let’s get to that.

We need to talk about those lines

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

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primary Day voting information

From the inbox:

On Super Tuesday, March 3, eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at any of the 401 voting centers across the county. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For the first time in Harris County, there will be both Democratic and Republican polls at all voting sites.

“Although there are a lot of races on the ballot, I encourage everyone to always vote all the way down the ballot.” added Trautman. “Remember, you can bring a sample ballot, notes, or an endorsement card into the voting booth with you.”

Voters can access individual sample ballots for both parties, find polling locations, and use the wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. The wait time feature, allows users to find voting centers and get an idea of what the lines look like. This gives voters the option of choosing a convenient location with little or no wait time.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office also reminds registered voters to make sure they have an acceptable form of identification when they head out to the polls. Click here for list of acceptable ID.

Winners of the primary elections will move on to the general election on Tuesday, November 3. If the primaries end in a runoff, the 2020 Primary Runoff Elections will be held on May 26. The last day to register to vote for the runoffs is April 27, 2020.

Unofficial Election Day results will be posted on www.HarrisVotes.com as they come in on election night. Official results will be posted after the canvass is completed.

You can see the list of polling locations here, and the interactive map is here. Remember that map only shows twenty locations at a time, so enter your address to easily see the locations near you. Any location works for either party. It should be a busy day – like, more votes cast on Tuesday than in the entire 2015 Mayoral race – but the map should give an indication of how busy each location is, so choose accordingly. I will of course be following developments and report it all out beginning on Wednesday. Happy voting!

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

District H status

The closest election we had on Saturday remains unsettled.

CM Karla Cisneros

Just a dozen votes separate Houston City Council District H contenders Karla Cisneros and Isabel Longoria, and it may come down to an undetermined number of provisional, overseas and military ballots to determine a winner in the race.

According to the Harris County Clerk’s office, incumbent Cisneros had edged out Longoria by just .12 percent of the vote in Saturday’s runoff election. Cisneros won 5,283 votes or 50.06 percent, and Longoria received 5,271 votes, or 49.94 percent of ballots counted.

Longoria could request a recount under Texas election law. When the difference in the number of votes received between the two candidates (12 in the District H race) is less than 10 percent of the number of total votes received by the race winner (528 votes, in Cisneros’ case), the losing candidate could petition for a recount, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Longoria has not yet committed to requesting a recount, nor has she conceded in the race. The deadline to file a recount request is 5 p.m. Dec. 22, two days after Harris County will canvass or officially tally the votes.

“I will wait for every vote to be counted before making any decisions about a recount or other process,” Longoria said in a press release Sunday morning.

[…]

Trautman’s office can receive overseas and military ballots up to six days after an election, said Teneshia Hudspeth, a Harris County Clerk’s Office spokesperson. They do not know how many provisional ballots were cast.

It has no way of identifying if any of those ballots cast a vote for District H until the election canvass, Hudspeth said.

You can see the election night returns here, and Longoria’s press release here. I expect two things to happen: One, for Longoria to ask for a recount. She has every right to do this, and there’s no good reason not to do it. This was a super close race, and everything should be double-checked according to the rules. And two, I expect the recount will make no difference. They almost never do. There just aren’t that many overseas and military ballots, and there were never that many provisional ballots that ultimately counted. By all means, go through the process, but keep your expectations about what will happen as a result modest.

County to seek new voting machines

About time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to seek vendor proposals for new voting machines.

The clerk’s office plans to issue a request for proposal for a new voting system this month. An evaluation committee composed of county government officials will vet proposals and recommend a model by August 2020, according to a timeline Trautman provided.

“We did establish a community advisory community and met with them, and we received written and online feedback,” Trautman said. “We also had an election machine vendor fair where the community came out … the next step is to start the RFP process.”

The clerk’s office plans to purchase the new machines by the end of 2020.

After training election judges and staging demonstrations for the public, Trautman plans to debut the devices in the May 2021 elections. Trautman initially had explored the idea of buying new machines in time for the November 2020 general election, which could see a record number of voters because it is a presidential year, but concluded that timeline was not feasible.

Rolling out the machines in a low-turnout election would allow elections officials to more easily address any problems that arise, she said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged Trautman to look for ways to decrease wait times at polling sites in the 2020 general election. Since the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting after the 2018 election, a time-saving method 76 percent of Harris County voters used that November, officials across the state worry future elections would feature long lines to cast ballots.

“I just want to reiterate my commitment to you to support work to make those lines shorter and fast, and anything we need to do for these 2020 elections, given that we still use these old voting machines,” Hidalgo said.

Security, ease of use, and some form of paper receipt should be the top priorities. Look to Travis County for some ideas – as with voting centers, having Michael Winn on staff will surely help with that. Those voting centers are intended to help with the long lines – having extended hours and more locations during early voting helps, too – and maybe we could remind some folks that they have the ability to vote by mail, too. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the vendor proposals.