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State ordered to pay plaintiffs’ fees in voter ID case

Pending appeal, of course.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas ultimately won the long-winding fight to keep its voter ID law on the books, but a federal judge has ruled the state is on the hook for nearly $6.8 million in legal fees and costs.

In a Wednesday order, federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi found the state must pay that sum to the collection of parties who sued over the 2011 restrictions the state set on what forms of photo identification are accepted at the polls. A spokesperson for the Texas attorney general indicated the state will appeal the ruling.

The voter ID case ricocheted through the federal courts for nearly seven years and over several elections, with Ramos first ruling in 2014 that lawmakers discriminated against Hispanic and black voters when they crafted one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws.

Lawmakers eventually revised the voter ID law in 2017 to match temporary rules Ramos had put in place for the 2016 election in an effort to ease the state’s requirements as the litigation moved forward. After the state faced multiple losses in the courts, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld Texas’ revised law.

But left intact were findings that the original law produced discriminatory results.

It is what it is, and the appeals process will take many more months. No one should be making detailed plans for the money, because even if it survives appeal it’s going to be awhile before any checks get cut. This is a consolation prize, and not that much of one, but it’s what we’ve got. Until we can take back the Lege and more and repeal this stupid law.

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.

Of course they have voted by mail

It should surprise no one that the three main opponents to an expansion of voting by mail have all voted by mail themselves in past elections.

Three of Texas’ top Republican leaders are vigorously fighting efforts to expand mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, arguing it will lead to increased voter fraud, yet all three have themselves cast absentee ballots at least once in past elections.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — then a state senator — voted by mail in 2007 for a May Houston municipal election and an ensuing runoff, though Harris County records show his first mail-in ballot was rejected because of a signature verification issue. Patrick is a regular voter in both local and state elections and favors casting his ballot during the early voting period. He’s been voting in Montgomery County since 2017.

Though he’s a regular in-person voter in Collin County, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton used the voting by mail option to cast a ballot in a 2011 municipal election, according to county records. In recent elections, he’s opted for voting early.

Travis County election records show Gov. Greg Abbott cast a mail-in ballot in a 1997 special election when he was a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Abbott consistently votes in local and state elections.

Abbott and Patrick and Paxton would no doubt assert that they were taking advantage of a perfectly legal opportunity to use an absentee ballot, and that all those other people are asking for something that the law does not allow. I would say that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, the law as written is hardly clear and lower courts did not agree with that more narrow interpretation. I would also note that one can have a principled disagreement about what the law says without lying and fearmongering about voting by mail, which has the effect of suppressing turnout and delegitimizing the process. (To be fair, Patrick and Paxton have been far more egregious about this than Abbott has, though he’s hardly uttered a peep in dissent of their noxious views.) As with Donald Trump and his current spokesperson, the impression one gets is “it’s fine for me to do this, but lowlifes like you can’t be trusted with it”. None of this had to be this way.

Hotze and pals still crying to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Houston GOP activist Steve Hotze and a coalition of business owners and conservatives have launched a legal challenge claiming Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus violate the Texas Constitution.

In a 34-page emergency pleading filed Friday, lawyers for Hotze as well as three pastors, state Rep. Bill Zedler and five business owners ask the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the orders.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Jared Woodfill argued in the petition that the governor does not have the power to issue mandates that suspend state laws and that he should have convened the Legislature instead.

“Our senators and state representatives have been muted because Gov. Abbott has chosen to act as a king, and that is fundamentally unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong,” Woodfill said.

Even if the law that gave Abbott his emergency powers is constitutional, Woodfill wrote, the orders are still unconstitutional because they deny due process by assuming every Texan and business is a threat to public health without allowing them the chance to defend themselves; violate equal protection by allowing some businesses to stay open and others not; and are otherwise “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

[…]

Woodfill said the petitioners’ goal is to set the precedent for governors’ authority during future emergencies.

“What’s going to happen if we have a COVID-20?” Woodfill said. “Are we going to again surrender all our constitutional rights?”

It’s hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and petitions coming from the Hotze machine, but I’m going to try. He and this same cohort (more or less) had previously filed a lawsuit in Travis County against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay at home orders. This had followed a lawsuit filed in March against the Harris County stay at home order, which he then tried to get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court but was denied. He then filed another lawsuit against Harris County over the face mask order and sought an emergency ruling from the Supreme Court on it, but by that time Abbott had issued an order overriding local orders and forbidding the requirement that face masks be worn. It’s not clear to me if this pleading is related to the Travis County lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton or if it is a second front in their war on anyone who dares to try to tell them what to do under any circumstance. I’m also not sure if that Harris County lawsuit is still in effect or if it has been mooted by subsequent state actions.

All right, so that’s where I think we are now. I’ll say again, I think there are very valid questions to be asked about what powers the Governor does and does not have in emergencies. When must the Legislature be involved? What if any laws can be superseded or suspended by executive order, and under what circumstance? What power does the Governor have to unilaterally overrule cities and counties, whose executives have their own emergency powers? There’s plenty of room for robust debate on these topics, and I hope the Lege addresses some of them in the spring. It’s clear that the Governor – and Mayors, and County Judges – need to have some latitude to take quick action in times of crisis, but it’s equally clear there needs to be some limits on that, in terms of scope and duration and jurisdiction. I don’t want any Governor to have unchecked power, least of all Greg Abbott. I also don’t want a bunch of nihilistic cranks to have the power to disregard public health and safety with impunity. I don’t want the worst people in the world to be the ones asking the questions that will affect all of us going forward. I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of responding to this.

RNC sues to halt California mail ballot expansion

Put a pin in this.

The Republican National Committee and other Republican groups have filed a lawsuit against California to stop the state from mailing absentee ballots to all voters ahead of the 2020 general election, a move that was made in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced this month that the state would move to encourage all voters to cast their ballots by mail in November — the most widespread expansion of vote-by-mail that has been announced as a result of the pandemic and in the nation’s most populous state.

The RNC’s lawsuit challenges that step, marking a significant escalation in the legal battles between Republicans and Democrats that are currently being waged in more than a dozen states.

[…]

Sunday’s suit — filed on behalf of the RNC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party — seeks to halt Newsom’s order, arguing that it “violates eligible citizens’ right to vote.”

The groups argue that Newsom’s order will lead to fraud because the state plans to mail ballots to inactive voters automatically, which “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting.”

Studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud as a result of in-person or mail-in voting.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the complaint here. Part of it is specific to California law and whether or not Governor Newsom has the authority to issue this executive order, and part of it is the claim that mailing a ballot to all eligible voters will result in an unconstitutional “dilution” of the vote because of the likelihood that more “fraudulent” votes will be cast. I can’t speak to the former, but the latter is a claim that bears watching. It’s ridiculous on its face, especially given the utter lack of evidence to bolster any claim about significant “vote fraud”, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTUS couldn’t eventually find a way to justify a limit to voting rights down the line.

None of this directly impacts Texas – we’re in a different judicial district, and there’s not a chance on earth that we would mail a ballot to every registered voter, no matter the outcome of the various federal lawsuits. But we need to keep an eye on this because it could eventually have an effect here.

More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

A note about voter ID and vote by mail

See if you can detect the same theme I’m detecting.

From Houston Public Media:

Rice University recently surveyed Harris County voters. And nearly 70 percent of respondents preferred voting by mail if that’s an option.

“We found that a large number of voters – particularly Democrats, women, and persons over 65 – were reluctant to vote in person at a polling location on or before Election Day,” said Rice political scientist Bob Stein.

[…]

But the Rice survey shows Republicans are far less likely to want to vote by mail, let alone to support others doing so for fear of catching COVID-19. One reason: potential voter fraud.

Clay Mills of Humble has been a Republican poll judge for the past 10 years.

“In my opinion, based on all those years of experience, by far the easiest way to commit fraud is vote by mail,” Mills said. “I think we should always be concerned about health and do the best we can, but we also can’t destroy the purity of the vote based on health reasons.”

Such fraud is extremely rare, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Michael Palmquist is also a Republican poll judge and army veteran from Spring. As for concerns about voting in person during the pandemic? “None whatsoever.”

“I mean, if I can go to the grocery store, and I can go to Sam’s, and I can go to Walmart, there’s no reason I can’t stand in line and vote,” Palmquist said.

And Joanne Thomas, an Alabama native and a teacher from West Houston, is battling cancer. But she’s still determined to vote in person, not by mail.

“I will wear my gloves, I will wear my mask, and I will go in and vote,” Thomas said. “I have family members who have died for the right for me to vote.”

Like Mills, Thomas is concerned about potential vote fraud.

“I have heard the term ballot harvesting, and I totally disagree with it because you can’t prove who you are,” Thomas said, “I am a firm believer that you should carry some form of ID to have the privilege to vote in the United States of America. You should be an American citizen and pay taxes. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to have the say on who will govern us.”

See here for more on the poll in question, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

From the DMN:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lewis Sessions, a Dallas lawyer who is not involved in the case, agrees with Paxton. Sessions, who has represented the county Republican Party in voter fraud cases, said he opposes expanded mail voting because the system can be exploited by fraudsters.

If mail voting is opened up to a larger portion of the population, he said, election officials will be unprepared to handle such an increase and unable to verify each ballot.

David Thomas, 72, of Oak Cliff said he was similarly concerned that officials would not be able to use the state’s voter identification law to verify ballots cast by mail.

“Somebody else can vote for you,” he said.

Sessions, 67, said the courts should stay out of the legal battle and let local officials determine the best way to hold elections during the pandemic.

“This can be done, it’s just a question of working through the logistics,” he said.

But not all Republicans are opposed to expanding mail voting. Kathaleen Wall, a GOP candidate in a runoff to replace Sugar Land Rep. Pete Olson, has urged her voters to vote by mail, saying in mailers that they have the “green light” if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus.

John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a national conservative nonprofit that works on campaign finance reform, said he supports expanding mail voting during the pandemic — with some caveats.

Pudner, a longtime Republican consultant who worked for President George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000, said mail ballot applications should be sent to all voters as long as the process includes a form of verification, like a signature, a witness match or a thumbprint.

His group does not support sending ballots to all registered voters or conducting the elections entirely by mail, as Nevada has announced. Pudner said he also thinks the changes should be temporary and not extend beyond the pandemic.

Did you notice the reference to voter ID in each of the two stories? I’ve previously discussed this, but it seems this is the sort of thing that will need to be repeated over and over again. The reason that the odious voter ID law does not apply to mail ballots is because the Republicans that passed the voter ID law chose to exempt mail ballots from any voter ID requirement. The reason they chose to exempt mail ballots is because mail ballots, at least at the time that the voter ID law was passed, strongly favored Republicans, and Republican legislators did not want to make it harder for their voters to vote. (Also, too, voters over the age of 65 are disproportionately white, as noted by LULAC when they intervened in the first federal lawsuit over expanding vote by mail.)

Now, I am not calling for voter ID to be extended to include mail ballots. The voter ID law is trash and needs to be thrown out. My point is simply that if you are going to trot out the creaky old talking points about “vote fraud”, you should at least be made to reckon with the fact that the Republican legislators who passed the voter ID law in 2011 specifically and deliberately chose to exempt mail ballots from its requirement. It was convenient for them to claim that “vote fraud” was not an issue for mail ballots then, just as it is convenient for them to claim that it is an issue now. You might want to ask yourself why that is.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Voter, sanitize thyself

WTF?

With voting in the primary runoff election starting next month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas secretary of state on Tuesday issued “minimum recommended health protocols” for elections, including a suggestion that voters bring their own hand sanitizer to the polls and that they “may want to consider” voting curbside if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

In an eight-page document, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs laid out checklists for voters and election workers that range from self-screening for symptoms to increased sanitation of voting equipment — none of which are binding and many of which were already being considered by local election officials planning for the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its recommendations, the state said voters should consider wearing cloth face masks, bringing their own marking devices — like pencils with erasers or styluses — and using curbside voting if they have a cough, fever, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Voters in Texas have long had the option of having a ballot brought to them outside their polling place if “a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

The state instructed local election officials to place markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing and to keep at least 6 feet between voting stations. Election officials should also consider having all employees wear masks, the secretary of state said.

The recommendations are meant to serve as a baseline, and county officials can adopt additional protocols. Early voting for the July primary runoff starts June 29.

Man, this is weak. The main takeaway here is that the state of Texas really, really doesn’t want to do anything to make it safer or easier for anyone to vote. Let’s put aside the hotly-contested question about allowing more voting by mail and consider two fairly simple alternatives the state could do in this regard. One, the state could pay for the extra supplies that voters or county officials if they are willing and able are being encouraged to provide for themselves. A few million bucks from Greg Abbott’s discretionary fund would go a long way towards buying hand sanitizer, pencils, masks and gloves for poll workers, and so forth, not just for the July election but for November as well. Additionally, and speaking of November, Abbott could use his emergency powers – or call a special session if this would be too legally questionable – to extend the early voting period for November to four weeks. That would do a lot to address concerns about long lines and crowds of people crammed inside polling places waiting their turn. He extended the early voting period for July to address this, which I do appreciate. But no, we get this limp mixture of “you might wanna bring some Purell with you, and oh yeah, mark some spots on the floor”. Are you kidding me?

Republican voters should be unhappy about this inability to engage with the actual issue, too. This isn’t hard. And surely I’m not the only one looking at that recommendation to voters that they spend their own money to provide their own risk mitigation and thinking that telling voters there’s a cost to voting they have to pay amounts to a poll tax. If there isn’t a lawsuit filed over this, I’ll be quite surprised. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the state to take this seriously.

Dan Patrick gets all hysterical about voting by mail

Poor Dan. You know how emotional he gets. Could someone get him a nice cup of chamomile tea, to help him calm down a bit? Thanks.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday said that efforts to expand mail-in voting during the coronavirus amount to a “scam by Democrats to steal the election” and claimed that people under 65 are at more risk of dying in a car wreck on the way to vote than they are from dying from the coronavirus because they voted in person.

“There is no reason — capital N, capital O — no reason that anyone under 65 should be able to say I am afraid to go vote,” Patrick, a Republican, said in an interview with Fox News. “Have they been to a grocery store? Have they been to Walmart? Have they been to Lowe’s? Have they been to Home Depot? Have they been anywhere? Have they been afraid to go out of their house? This is a scam by the Democrats to steal the election.”

Texas has been locked in a legal fight over whether it has to expand who is eligible to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple groups have sued the state, saying it’s dangerous to require people to wait in line and cast ballots on machines shared with other voters while the virus is spreading. GOP state officials have opposed the effort, however, saying that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.

Patrick repeated those worries about fraud on Friday, while also dismissing any fears people might have about going to the polls if they aren’t eligible for a mail-in ballot. Patrick noted that the vast majority of people dying from the virus are older. Currently in Texas, anyone 65 or older or with a disability is eligible for a ballot.

“This idea that we want to give you a disability claim because I am afraid to go vote — if you are under 65 — is laughable,” Patrick said. “You have more chance of being in a serious auto accident if you are under 65 on the way to vote than you do from catching the virus and dying from it on the way to voting. This is the greatest scam ever.”

Texas does not have complete data for the ages of the 1,440 people who have died in the state from the virus. But the state has completed fatality investigations for 489 of those deaths, and about 29% of those were people confirmed to be under 65.

In addition, public health experts are encouraging people of all ages to limit their social interactions. While older people are generally at more risk of dying from the virus, young people can transmit it and endanger people of all ages.

You may recall, Dan Patrick said there were more important things than living and that senior citizens should be willing to die for the economy. So maybe he’s not the best judge of what one’s risk appetite should be.

It’s easy to mock Dan “Menace II Grandma” Patrick, and we all should do it on a regular basis because he is ridiculous. But we should also look at his words and try to understand what he’s really saying. Whether he meant to or not, there are three things that he made clear from this little outburst.

First, there’s no actual justification for the 65-and-over qualification. It’s completely arbitrary, and Patrick doesn’t even try to defend it. It’s there because that’s the number lawmakers picked when they wrote the law. If someone did press Patrick on this point, I’m sure he’d have little to offer beyond some form of “that’s just the way it is”. The federal age-discrimination lawsuit hasn’t had a response from the state yet, and I’ll be very interested to see what justification they come up with. My guess is they won’t bother to try to justify it, they’ll instead simply claim that having an age limit isn’t discriminatory. My point here is that Dan Patrick can’t defend this provision in the law, he can only hide behind it.

Second, there’s the “vote fraud” shibboleth. Forget for a minute that there’s a trivially small amount of actual vote fraud in the system, since statistics and logic mean nothing in this context. I’m old enough to remember when the voter ID bill was passed and the litigation was filed against it. One of the many points of contention over this odious law was the fact that it only applied to in person voting. Voting by mail, which was a smaller component of turnout than it is now and which was much more Republican than it is now (look at the absentee ballot totals for Harris County from 2008 and 2012, for example), was exempted in part because the Republicans who passed the law did not want to burden their own voters, but also because they professed no concerns at all vote vote by mail fraud, even as Democratic legislators and people who testified at the hearings pointed out that most of the handful of vote fraud examples we had centered on mail ballots. The only reason why Republicans are trotting out their “vote fraud!” wolf cries now is because Democrats have gotten better at using vote by mail. That’s what they’re actually afraid of.

And that brings us to point three. The Republicans know they are losing the argument. There was a time when Republicans didn’t care about who was showing up to vote, because they were confident they were going to win all of the elections they wanted to win. They had the lion’s share of the vote – George W. Bush won re-election as Governor in 1998 with 68% of the vote, and he got 62% of the vote as President in 2004 – and they knew it. They have no such assurance today, and they know that, too. All of the big urban counties (save for Tarrant, which is headed that way) are hopelessly Democratic, and now the big suburban counties are slipping away from them. They see their lack of popularity with younger voters and people of color. They’re not going to change what they stand for, so Plan B is to make it harder on all the people they don’t like to vote. This isn’t a revelation, and yes I know what Paul Weyrich was saying back in the 1980s. The difference now is that they really are saying it out loud. They don’t want to make it easier for people to vote, because they fear – with justification – they will lose too many elections if they do. They know people aren’t buying what they’re selling, so they’re trying to restrict the marketplace.

So yes, please do continue mocking Dan “Triggered By Sandra Bullock” Patrick. It’s fun, and he deserves it. But listen to what he’s saying, because he’s telling us what he’s afraid of. Let’s make sure we’re paying close attention to that.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

Arguments due this week in Astros sign stealing lawsuits

Here we go.

Did not age well

Attorneys will submit written arguments May 25 to a Harris County judge in the Astros’ attempt to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit filed by season ticket holders upset by the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

State District Judge Robert Schaffer is overseeing the case, which combines three earlier lawsuits accusing the Astros of fraud and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

A hearing to dismiss normally would be held in person but will be conducted in writing because courthouse access is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consolidated suit, which was updated earlier this month, expands a proposed class of Astros season ticket holders suing the team to include full and partial season ticket-holders from 2016 through 2020.

It also adds three plaintiffs as prospective representatives for the requested class action.

One represents 2016 ticket holders. A second, the engineering and construction management firm CHA Consulting, would represent Diamond Club customers.

A third, Houston resident Donald Rao, represents 2020 season ticket holders who are seeking refunds from the ballclub for games that are not expected to be played this season because of the Major League Baseball shutdown.

See here for the previous update. With the DraftKings lawsuit tossed, there’s this one and the California lawsuit, which the Astros want either to be dismissed or moved to Texas.

First federal vote by mail lawsuit hearing

One down, two to go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery heard arguments Friday in a federal lawsuit seeking to give all voters the option to vote by mail due to fears of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

[…]

During Friday’s federal court hearing, Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn argued that concerns about coronavirus should not disqualify someone from exercising their right to vote. Doing so discriminates against classes of voters, such as voters under the age of 65.

Requiring people under the age of 65 to vote in person creates a “survival of the fittest election,” Dunn said via videoconference, and an impossible choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, voters will be left in a “twilight zone,” unclear if they can apply for a mail-in ballot or not, Dunn said.

The Texas Democratic Party named Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen as defendants in the suit. Other plaintiffs include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other individual voters Joseph Daniel Cascino, Shandra Marie Sansing, and Brenda Li Garcia.

They are seeking a preliminary injunction for the finding that the current election conditions violate tenets of the First, 14th and 26th amendments as well as some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The suit also requests that the defendants stop issuing threats of criminal or civil sanctions for helping voters vote by mail.

Biery said he could not estimate when he would issue a ruling in the case. “All I can tell you is it will be forthcoming,” he said. “No guarantee as to when.”

Robert Green, an attorney representing Bexar County and Callanen, said the county “is not here to take a position” on the various legal arguments presented by the Democratic Party or by the State. However, Green stated that counties have no mechanism or authority to investigate what “disability” a voter cites in an application for a mail-in ballot.

“A voter who believes that they are eligible … is permitted to indicate that solely by checking a box,” he said. “If a court were to order or if the Secretary of State were to issue guidance that local officials should reject certain disability applications if they’re premised on some COVID-related fear or lack of immunity, it’s not clear at all that local officials would be able to do that because the application does not allow voters” to explain their disability, he said.

Lack of immunity to COVID-19 is a physical condition, Green said. “A voter lacking that immunity is endangered by in-person voting. I think that that’s an inescapable reality.”

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, not long after this hearing came the State Supreme Court ruling that for now at least halted efforts to encourage people to apply for mail ballots. The people who have already asked for them and cited “disability” as the reason will presumably still receive them – as noted, there’s neither a process nor the authorization to check on that. The other two federal lawsuits are not on the calendar yet as far as I know. I have no idea if we’re going to have a clear ruling on this in time for the primary runoff. Of course, the question of what comes after that is even bigger, so this story is just getting underway. Stay tuned.

When is a strip club not a strip club?

When it’s a restaurant, with no strippers. What, did you think that was a trick question?

A week after a temporary court order allowed a Houston strip club to resume operations, a federal judge has ruled that the club’s owner must operate as just a restaurant – no dancers allowed.

Houston police raided Onyx Club just after midnight on May 1, insisting the business did not qualify to reopen under Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidelines for phased reopenings. Officers threatened to arrest owner Eric Langan, who defied orders until 4 a.m., when he shut down the club.

Langan’s business, Trumps Inc., filed a federal lawsuit calling the club a restaurant, and alleging that the police raid and closure violated his civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore granted Langan and Onyx Club a temporary injunction on May 1 that let the club resume operations, but said at a Friday hearing that the business may not offer any services that go beyond those specifically allowed in the new guidance.

“Sexually oriented businesses may only offer restaurant services and are prohibited from providing any other service,” Gilmore wrote in the ruling.

Onyx Club is allowed to reopen as a restaurant so long as it only serves food, but it’s presently defined as a “sexually oriented business,” according to the ruling.

“Because (Trumps Inc.) operates a sexually oriented business, they are prohibited from offering both restaurant services and entertainers, even if the entertainers are fully clothed,” Gilmore wrote.

See here for the background. That was from last Friday, and while the club owner says their business is doing well now, who knows how long that may last under these conditions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re now competing with a bunch of places whose primary business has always been food service. We’ll see how Onyx does without the loss of their main amenity.

One more thing, since this came up in that post:

In a case filed by a Houston strip club that wanted to reopen as a restaurant, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore of Houston said Abbott’s changing series of orders “has caused a state of confusion that rests clearly on the Governor’s doorstep.”

Gilmore ruled that Onyx Houston could open only “without additional entertainment” — in other words, no dancers, “even if the entertainers are fully clothed.”

But she went on to suggest some flaws in the state’s executive orders.

“As previously stated, the Plaintiff has failed to add the State as a party to this action to address the First Amendment and equal protection issues raised by the Governor’s orders. Nonetheless, the Court feels compelled to point out the constitutional problems raised by the Governor’s various orders.

“The fact that the governor has now apparently decided that jail time is too harsh a penalty for a violation of his orders is little comfort,” the judge wrote, “as even that action seems to have been motivated by the impact of his order on a single violator, Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, leaving many business owners unsure, even now, if the orders would be equally applied to them.”

The story points out that the state of Texas – not just Greg Abbott, but also Ken Paxton in his role as lapdog/enforcer – has been quite inconsistent in its directives to businesses and cities, doing a complete reversal on the matter of enforcement after Shelley Luther started showboating. This pandemic has been very difficult for all levels of government to manage. It’s something we hadn’t seen before, and the various stay-at-home orders do raise a lot of questions about executive authority and competing interests and so forth, which the courts will be sorting out, in some cases for years to come. Greg Abbott and his craven response to the first sign of pushback from the seething masses that make up his Republican Party didn’t make any of this any easier.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.

LULAC joins TDP’s federal mail ballot lawsuit

More plaintiffs, more fun.

A prominent Latino civil rights group is jumping into the fight to expand Texas’ voting-by-mail eligibility, alleging the restriction that limits age eligibility for voting by mail to those 65 and older disproportionately harms Texas Latinos because they tend to be younger in age.

The League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms signed on Tuesday to the Texas Democratic Party’s federal lawsuit against the state raising claims that the state’s absentee voting restriction is unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination against voters based on race.

“All voters will face substantial health risks by voting in person. But the consequences of voting in person will not be equally shared among Texas’ demographic populations,” reads LULAC’s complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Antonio.

LULAC cited census estimates that show nearly two out of every three adults older than 65 in Texas are white, indicating that the pool of voters eligible to request a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in is predominantly white.

“This means that the younger and minority voters, including many of LULAC Plaintiffs’ members, are disproportionately harmed by Defendants’ enforcement of the Eligibility Criteria,” the organization argued. “Nearly a third of Texas’s Latino voters are between the ages of 18-29.”

See here for the background. As noted, there’s a hearing this Friday for this suit. There’s also the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, both in federal court, and the other TDP lawsuit, in state court. Kind of amazing there are this many seemingly viable arguments for allowing greater access to mail ballots, isn’t it? Almost like our state laws are overly restrictive. Doesn’t mean any of these will make it past the Fifth Circuit, but they’re going to have to work hard to shoot these all down.

Early voting gets an early start

This is a remarkably sensible thing to do.

Ahead of the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott has doubled the length of the early voting period for the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

In a proclamation issued Monday, Abbott ordered early voting for the July 14 runoffs to begin June 29 instead of on July 6. He noted that sticking with the truncated early voting window that’s typical for runoff elections “would prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 disaster.”

Abbott previously used his emergency powers under his statewide disaster declaration to delay the primary runoffs, which were originally slated for May, and a special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14.

[…]

“In order to ensure that elections proceed efficiently and safely when Texans go to the polls to cast a vote in person during early voting or on election day,” Abbott wrote in the proclamation, “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.”

See here for the background. Bear in mind, it is this election for which the expanded vote by mail order applies, pending the outcome of appeals. Both increasing vote by mail and extending the early voting period serves the purpose of reducing the risk of in person voting. It could be that this decision was a strategic one, designed to undercut the Democratic argument that fear of contracting coronavirus is a legitimate disability per Texas law that must be mitigated by mail ballots. The idea here would be that having a longer early voting period for this election means that the risk of being in a crowd or waiting on line to vote is sufficiently lower that no further mitigation is needed. It may also be that Abbott is responding to the wishes of Republican voters, who have so far expressed greater interest in voting in person. Or maybe, just maybe, Abbott did this because it was a smart and beneficial thing to do. Crazier things have happened. If that’s the case, maybe he’ll be amenable to allowing a longer early voting period for November as well. Be that as it may, you now have two weeks to vote early in person for the primary runoffs. It’s a good thing however it came to be.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

Turns out there are a lot of obstacles to voting by mail in Texas, and so there are a lot of lawsuits being filed by various plaintiffs to rectify that.

A coalition of voters and civil rights groups opened a new front Monday in the legal wars over mail-in voting in Texas during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Several lawsuits already underway challenge state limits on who can vote by mail, but a lawsuit filed Monday dives into the mechanics of mail-in balloting, arguing that existing rules will deprive voters of their constitutional rights in the middle of a public health crisis. In the federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio, five Texas voters with medical conditions, Voto Latino, the NAACP Texas and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans argue that four existing rules for absentee voting will place undue burdens on the right to vote, or risk disenfranchising Texans, during the pandemic.

First, they’re challenging a requirement that voters pay postage to return mail-in ballots, arguing that it amounts to a poll tax during a public health crisis. Second, they’re challenging a requirement that sets deadlines for when ballots must be postmarked and received, arguing that the window should be extended. Third, they object to a requirement for matching signatures on the flap of a ballot envelope and the signature used on an application to vote by mail, which they argue discriminates against voters with disabilities whose signatures may change. And fourth, they’re challenging restrictions on the assistance absentee voters can get to return a marked ballot.

Naming Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as the defendant, they’re asking a federal judge to block the state from enforcing the provisions.

“Even if all registered voters are eligible to vote by mail in Texas in the November election, that would not be sufficient to prevent the serious risk of disenfranchisement and threats to public health that will occur if the Vote By Mail Restrictions remain in place in the pandemic,” the plaintiffs, who are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, wrote in their complaint.

[…]

But the latest challenge brings in voters who already qualify to vote by mail based on their disabilities but who must navigate the provisions for absentee voting in question during the pandemic. Among the plaintiffs is George “Eddie” Morgan, a 63-year-old former nurse in Dallas who has a genetic lung disorder and has been in strict isolation during the coronavirus outbreak in his community.

Morgan receives $19 dollars a week in food stamps and relies on food banks. To obtain postage for a mail-in ballot online to remain in isolation, he would have to purchase an entire book of stamps for $11, according to the lawsuit.

“The Postage Tax’s burden on the right to vote is severe. At best, it requires Texans — millions of whom are vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19 or have vulnerable loved ones — to pay to vote by mail so that they can avoid exposing themselves to the virus while exercising their right to vote,” the plaintiffs wrote. “At worst, it disenfranchises the millions of Texans who cannot risk exposure to COVID-19 but who also cannot obtain postage to mail their ballots.”

To recap, we have the federal lawsuit filed by the TDP, which has its first hearing this Friday, which argues that the threat of coronavirus qualifies as a disability under the law for anyone who wants to request a mail ballot. We have the federal age discrimination lawsuit, which alleges that the 65-and-over provision for requesting a mail ballot violates the 26th Amendment. We have the state lawsuit, also filed by the TDP on the same grounds, for which a judge has issued an order allowing anyone to request a mail ballot for the July runoff, with a hearing set for later on the merits, which would allow the same for November and beyond. That order is being threatened by Ken Paxton, and the plaintiffs have filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals to end those shenanigans. Oh, and now a couple of activists have filed a complaint in Dallas County alleging that Paxton’s communication to county election officials constitutes voter fraud on Paxton’s part. I believe that sums it all up.

This lawsuit goes in a slightly different direction. It argues that even if everyone were granted the ability to request a mail ballot today, there would still be problems. In a rational world, with a well-designed election system, of course mail ballots would be postage free for exactly the reasons cited by the plaintiffs, there would be no effort to criminalize helping someone who needs it to fill out their ballot, and signature matching would be done in a fair and efficient manner. We obviously do not live in that world, but maybe we can take a step towards it with this flurry of litigation. At the very least, I hope they’re all losing sleep in the Solicitor General’s office. The Chron has more.

Criminal complaint filed against AG Ken Paxton

I should say “another criminal complaint”, this one over his bullying tactics about vote by mail.

MOAR MUG SHOTS

Two voting rights advocates have filed a complaint with the Dallas County district attorney, alleging Attorney General Ken Paxton committed voter fraud in each of the state’s 254 counties by contradicting a judge’s order expanding the availability of mail-in voting during the pandemic.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton’s letter intentionally misled Texas elections officials about eligibility to vote by mail,” said Kendall Scudder, one of the complainants. “Mail-in ballots aren’t where the election fraud is happening, it’s happening in the office of our indicted attorney general.”

Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak on April 17 issued a temporary injunction stating that any voter concerned about exposure to the coronavirus can avoid in-person voting and request a mail-in ballot by claiming a disability.

Paxton, a Republican who has argued disability claims should be reserved only for those who currently fall under that category, wrote in a filing that same day that Sulak’s order was automatically stayed when he filed an appeal.

[…]

Two attorneys reached by Hearst Newspapers agreed with Paxton’s assessment that the April 17 order was stayed when Paxton appealed.

Any appeal of an order that grants a temporary injunction or denies a plea to the jurisdiction, both of which occurred in this case, places an immediate stay on that order, said Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback. On top of that, the Attorney General’s office noted in its appeal that governmental entities are entitled to automatic stays in this situation, under Texas law.

In the Dallas County case, complainants Scudder and Woot Lervisit, who live and vote in the county, say that under the Texas election code, their complaint should trigger a criminal investigation of Paxton’s conduct.

See here and here for the background. You can see the press release relating to this action here, a copy of the complaint here, and a copy of the tweets submitted as supporting evidence here. This is another one of those times when I don’t feel qualified to evaluate the action, but if as the lawyers quoted in the story indicate, Paxton was correct to assert that the order was stayed, then I don’t know what the case is for action against him. I presume the Dallas County DA is better positioned to answer that question, and we’ll know his answer by the action he takes. In the meantime, it’s at least fun to note the irony of Ken Paxton being tripped up by a voter fraud charge. I don’t expect to get any more out of this than that, but we’ll see.

UPDATE: The DMN notes that Dallas County DA John Creuzot declined comment on the complaint. It also reports that Paxton has asked one of the Houston-area appeals courts to vacate the Sulak ruling. I don’t understand the jurisdiction there, given that the lawsuit originated in Travis County, but that’s all the story says.

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.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

TDP petitions appeals court to get Paxton to knock it off

Good.

The Texas Democratic Party has asked a court to order state officials not to interfere with a previous court order that opened up mail-in voting in the state.

In their filing Tuesday with the Third Court of Appeals, lawyers accused the state of thrusting voters and local election officials into “legal limbo” by contradicting the earlier ruling.

[…]

Earlier this month, Attorney General Ken Paxton accused local election officials of “misleading the public about their ability to vote by mail.”

“Fear of contracting COVID-19, however, is a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not amount to an actual disability that qualifies a voter to receive a ballot by mail,” Paxton said in a statement last week. ““My office will continue to defend the integrity of Texas’s election laws.”

In its filing, the Texas Democratic Party said the court needs to step in to ensure counties and voters do not fear applying for and processing vote-by-mail applications.

“The State has taken the extraordinary action of publicly disregarding an order from a coequal branch of the government, asserting that its view of the Texas Election Code, which was rejected by the trial court, is law of the land and threatening those who follow the trial court’s interpretation with prosecution,” lawyers wrote in their motion. “This includes calling into question the validity of the injunction within Travis County and intimidating Travis County voters.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the TDP’s motion. Here I am Not Being A Lawyer again, but it sure seems weird to me that Ken Paxton would simply announce what Judge Sulak’s ruling meant, when the 3rd Court is right there. I get that the AG’s job includes offering non-binding legal opinion about things, but he’s also a party in this lawsuit, so his opinion in this case is hardly disinterested. Anyway, we’ll see what the 3rd Court makes of all this.

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.

First hearing for TDP federal vote by mail lawsuit set for next week

Here we go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery has ordered a hearing on expanding vote-by-mail to all Texas voters in advance of the July 14 Democratic Party runoff election. The hearing, set for 9 a.m. May 15, will allow only one lawyer and one staff person from each side of the case, essentially the Texas Democratic Party (TDP) vs. the State of Texas, to make their arguments.

Also because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the public will not be allowed to attend and the number of journalists will be limited, though Biery’s order states that “to give due respect to our tradition of open courts and the public’s right to know, the Court will try to provide audio live streaming through the Court’s website.”

[…]

Biery’s order acknowledges that instituting statewide universal mail-in balloting might not be effective, given the likelihood that appeals in the case might take the final decision past the July 2 deadline for requesting mail-in ballots for the runoff.

That’s the only story I’ve seen so far, so those are all the details you get. As a reminder, this is about the TDP’s federal lawsuit to allow more people to request absentee ballots, at least for the July 14 primary runoffs and SD14 special election. The state lawsuit filed by the TDP, which AG Ken Paxton is currently throwing a hissy fit over, and the federal age discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of young voters, are separate actions. The TDP had filed a request for a ruling by May 15 that orders the state to allow anyone who wants one to request a mail ballot. As this is a morning hearing, and I presume both sides have filed their briefs, we could very well get some kind of order by the end of the day. Mark your calendars for next Friday the 15th.

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.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

The TDP motion for a fast ruling in their federal vote by mail lawsuit

I mentioned this in passing in yesterday’s post, so here are some more details.

Updating an ongoing lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday asked a federal judge in San Antonio to issue an order by May 15 requiring state officials to expand vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections.

The motion also asked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to block Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton “from threatening voters with criminal or civil sanctions” if they vote by mail over fears of contracting the coronavirus at polling places.

The fast deadline is required, the petition argued, because county election officials need clarity as they prepare for primary runoff elections and a special election to fill the seat of retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — both set for July 14.

[…]

On April 15, state District Judge Tim Sulak ordered expanded ballot access due to coronavirus concerns, a ruling that Paxton has appealed. That same day, Paxton issued a statement saying that fear of contracting COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse under state law.

“While the state Court has ruled that under age 65 voters can use the disability exemption to vote absentee, the Attorney General has threatened to prosecute those who engage in this activity,” the updated federal lawsuit said.

“Texas’ law discriminates on its face against younger voters by creating two classes of voters: those 65 or older and are able to access absentee ballots and those under 65, who generally cannot,” the lawsuit argued. “When in-person voting becomes physically dangerous, age-based restrictions on mail ballot eligibility become constitutionally unsound.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume the state will file its response shortly. There really is a compressed schedule here, because the more mail ballots that will need to be sent out, the more time election administrators will need to handle the requests. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Age discrimination lawsuit filed over vote by mail

This is something new.

Citing the threats of the coronavirus, six Texas voters filed suit in federal court Wednesday challenging restrictions that limit age eligibility for voting-by-mail to those 65 and older.

In a lawsuit filed in San Antonio, the voters — all between the ages of 18 and 28 — claim the Texas election code violates the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. While all Texas voters 65 and older can request a mail-in ballot, those younger than 65 must meet a narrow set of requirements to qualify.

The voters are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The lawsuit cites the urgency brought on by the coronavirus outbreak in asking a federal judge to remedy what they argue are discriminatory and unconstitutional age restrictions.

“Having opted to make mail-in voting an option for voters in Texas, Defendants may not constitutionally choose to restrict access to the franchise to voters for no other reason than the fact that they are 18 years old, 25 years old, or 64-and-a-half years old. Period,” the lawsuit argues. “While the Absentee Ballot Age Restriction would be unconstitutional under any event, in the current circumstances its application is unconscionable.”

[…]

As part of that fight, the Texas Democratic Party also filed a federal lawsuit arguing that holding a traditional election under the conditions brought on by the coronavirus — with current rules for mail-in voting in place — would violate several constitutional protections for voters, including the 26th Amendment.

But the newest lawsuit zeroes in wholly on a violation of the 26th Amendment in asking a federal judge to declare age restrictions for voting-by-mail unconstitutional to allow voters under the age of 65 to use that voting option.

“To be sure, some number of Texans will need to vote in person in these coming elections, even if mail voting is widely available,” the lawsuit reads. “But foreclosing this option to millions of members of the electorate simply on account of their age is facially unconstitutional.”

See here for more on the TDP’s federal lawsuit; there is now an order from the state lawsuit that would end this 65-and-over-only restriction. Shortly after I saw the news item for this lawsuit, the TDP announced that it had filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in the federal suit. We’re going to get some kind of action on this front in short order.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lawsuit like this before, and didn’t think much about it. Mark Joseph Stern breaks this down:

Although it is often viewed as a simple promise that Americans can vote upon turning 18, the 26th Amendment is actually a broad ban on age-based voting restrictions. It declares that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” for citizens 18 and over “on account of age.” In other words, the amendment does not just protect 18-year-olds’ ability to vote. It also forbids any law that abridges adult citizens’ right to vote because of their age. The amendment established a policy against laws that burden an adult’s suffrage due to their youth, reflecting a national consensus that younger adults deserve fully equal access to the ballot. As Yael Bromberg detailed in her groundbreaking study

Initially, courts adopted this view of the amendment. For instance, when striking down a policy that disenfranchised students living on campus, the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote in 1972 that the amendment “clearly evidences the purpose not only of extending the voting right to young voters but also of encouraging their participation by the elimination of all unnecessary burdens and barriers.” And the U.S. Supreme Court’s only 26th Amendment decision, Symm v. United States, struck down a county policy that singled out college students for special scrutiny when they registered to vote, forcing them to reveal personal information that ostensibly helped the registrar determine whether they qualified. Other courts invalidated similar laws that made it more difficult for college students to vote, even when they did not fully disenfranchise them. of the 26th Amendment, Congress said as much when considering the amendment in 1971: The Senate expressed its desire to remove “special burdens” on “young voters,” while the House of Representatives sought to abolish any voting law that had “the purpose or effect of discriminating on account of age.”

It is impossible to reconcile these decisions with contemporary laws that forbid adults of a certain age from voting by mail. In fact, it is remarkable that such laws remain on the books nearly a half-century after the ratification of the 26th Amendment. Today, most litigation over the amendment involves overt efforts to suppress college students’ suffrage—as when Florida attempted to outlaw early-voting sites on university campuses. (A federal judge blocked the rule as an unconstitutional age-based voting discrimination.) But the Constitution provides no lesser protection to voters age 18–64 who wish to vote absentee. As voting rights expert Joshua A. Douglas told me on Wednesday: “This is a strong claim. The 26th Amendment not only forbids states from denying the right to vote on the basis of age over 18. It also prohibits them from ‘abridging’ the right to vote based on age. Yet the Texas law does exactly that: impose discriminatory voting rules on the basis of age.”

Well, voting rights advocates have had a rough go of it lately in federal courts, but this approach may just work. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out. The Chron has more.

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.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

Hotze goes crying to the Supreme Court

This effing guy, I swear.

Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze on Monday filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court seeking an emergency ruling on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, which took effect this morning.

Hotze originally filed the lawsuit in state court last week, but District Judge Steven Kirkland on Friday denied his request for a temporary restraining order, allowing Hidalgo’s mandate to take effect Monday, as planned.

Hotze’s new filing echoes the argument he made to Kirkland: that the Texas Constitution and local government code do not give Hidalgo authority to require people to cover their faces in public.

[…]

During a Friday hearing in Kirkland’s court, Assistant County Attorney Seth Hopkins argued that Hotze did not have standing to challenge the order because he had no “actual imminent fear of prosecution.”

“The order itself tells the law enforcement, use broad discretion,” Hopkins said, according to a court transcript. “And the plaintiff concedes he’s not going to be prosecuted.”

Hotze attorney Jared Woodfill responded, “So, I guess my question is, if they don’t plan to enforce it, then why is the language even there? Why wouldn’t it just continue to be voluntary…?” He also clarified Monday that Hotze does not “concede he’s not going to be prosecuted” under the order.

Hopkins said the order allows officers to impose a fine if there is an “extreme case, but I think in the examples we have, we don’t have a case like that right now.”

See here for the background. We now have the Abbott reopening order, which overrules any local order that allows for a fine or other punishment for non-mask-wearing. I would think, in my non-lawyerly way, that Harris County will add that to its argument that Hotze has no standing. The Supreme Court has asked for a response from the county by this Friday, so we’ll see.