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Loving County

Voting centers everywhere

In Dallas:

Starting in November, problems like Mr. Voter’s, at least in Dallas County, will be a thing of the past. Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office officially gave the county permission to participate in the countywide voting program the state allows its most populous counties to opt into. That means that whenever you vote, whether it’s early or on Election Day, you can vote at whatever polling place you choose, as long as you’re both registered to vote in Dallas County and physically in Dallas County.

County commissioners voted to ask the state to get in on the program this spring, after county staff said participation would streamline the voting process, potentially increase voter turnout and decrease the number of voters who cast provisional ballots.

“It is time to come into the 21st century and have an election system that actually works,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said in March. “The main point about vote centers is that we have people, over 3,000 people, that wanted to vote during the last election and they were not able to do it. Voting centers bring that to the table. It’s time to make sure that anyone who wants to vote is able to go and vote in the right place without any problems.”

[…]

In order to participate in countywide voting this November, Dallas County had to upgrade its voter check-in system, something you may have noticed if you’re one of the literally hundreds of people who voted in May or June’s municipal elections. Those looking to cast ballots now check in on a cloud-connected tablet that has service from two carriers, in case one is on the fritz.

November’s state constitutional amendment election is essentially a dry run. If everything comes off without a hitch, and Dallas County sends a successful report to the state, the county will be able to offer countywide polling places during all elections moving forward.

In San Antonio:

The Secretary of State approved Bexar County’s adoption of the vote center model Friday for the upcoming November election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners Tuesday.

The November election will serve as the “soft rollout” for the vote center model, Callanen said. Vote centers allow voters to cast ballots at any location in Bexar County on Election Day. The county previously used the precinct model, under which voters were required to cast ballots at their specific precincts on election day.

“When we do publication [of voting locations], we’ll have Vote Center 1, VC 2, VC 3, and addresses listed,” Callanen said. “No longer are we precinct-driven.”

Callanen said she expected people to get used to the new model after a complete election cycle. The Elections Department plans to start its advertising push after Oct. 1 to allow people enough time to hear about and understand the new voting model.

“I think that will take a little assistance to get the word out,” she said.

This year’s Nov. 5 Election Day will feature 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be low. However, county election officials view the election as an important dress rehearsal for the November 2020 presidential election.

Both will join Harris County, which had its dry run in May and will get a fuller test this November, with the city of Houston elections and the Metro referendum. It’s a good thing that voting centers are spreading, because traditional polling places have been going away in the state in recent years.

A new report out from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that Texas is leading the nation in polling place closures, another practice that voting rights advocates fear can lead to disenfranchisement.

The report, titled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” looked at 757 of the 861 counties and county-level equivalents across the nation that were previously covered by Section 5, and found that 750 polling places in Texas have been shuttered since Shelby. That constitutes almost half of all polling places in the U.S. closed since 2013. Fourteen Texas counties closed at least 50 percent of their polling places after Shelby, and 590 have been shuttered since the 2014 midterm election.

Maricopa County in Arizona had the most polling place closures, but that was followed by six counties in Texas: Dallas lost 74 places; Travis lost 67; Harris shuttered 52; Brazoria closed 37; and Nueces closed 37.

“The large number of polling location closures is attributable to the size of Texas and the fact that we’re no longer under preclearance,” said Beth Stevens, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Now, “there’s no one [the state needs] to ask for permission to make changes.”

[…]

This comes into focus when looking at the demographics of some of the counties that saw the most closures. Brazoria County, which lost 59 percent of its polling locations since Shelby, is 30 percent Latino and 13 percent African American. The number of polling places in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi and 63 percent Latinx, dropped by nearly a third. In Jefferson County, where Beaumont is located, about 34 percent of its 250,000 residents are African American and 20 percent are Latino; polling places there dropped from 57 in 2012 to 39 in 2018.

The report attributes some of these closures to jurisdictions adopting the county-wide polling program and opening voting mega-centers. By allowing people to cast a ballot on Election Day at any location, instead of bounding them to their precinct, the program is supposed to make voting easier (more locations to choose from, shorter lines).

The Texas Civil Rights Project is supportive of the program, said Stevens—so long as it’s enacted responsibly. She pointed to counties like Harris and Bexar as good examples: they’ve moved to county-wide polling while maintaining every single polling location that they would otherwise be required to have.

But, the report notes, some counties with large drops in polling locations—like Somervell (minus 80 percent), Loving (minus 75 percent), and Stonewall (minus 75 percent)—didn’t transition to vote centers. The report adds, “voters in counties that still hold precinct-style elections have 250 fewer voting locations than they did in 2012.”

The report is here and I’ve just glanced at some of it, so I can’t give you too much extra context. Some of what’s reported in the Observer is a bit alarmist, however. Loving County had 110 total registered voters in 2016, and its demographics are almost entirely Anglo. I’d bet that its “75% reduction” is going from four sites to one. Stonewall County had 998 RVs total in 2016. Every voter counts, but not every county’s actions are equal in scope. The statistics for Brazoria, Jefferson, and Nueces counties sounds more ominous, but all of them use voting centers as well. Travis County, of course, is one of the pioneers of voting centers; one of the people in charge of implementing the Harris County program came from the Travis County Clerk’s office having done the same thing there. What all this means is we need more information about how well or not these are working and what the effect are on voters of color. Which, as is noted in the report summary, is a hard thing to assess without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This is definitely something to watch, I just can’t say right now what the level of concern needs to be. The Chron, whose story gets more into the details about voting centers, has more.

There will be more lawsuits

The lawsuit filed in Hood County to force County Clerk Katie Lang to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple won’t be the last one like it.

RedEquality

“We hope and expect that county clerks across Texas and the country will take a look at what happened [in Hood County] and do the right thing and follow the U.S. Constitution,” said Austin Kaplan, an Austin attorney who represents a Granbury gay couple who obtained a marriage license on Monday after filing a lawsuit against the Hood County Clerk’s office in federal court.

The Granbury couple, Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, who have been together for 27 years, have said they will move forward with their lawsuit until the county clerk’s office agrees to issue marriage licenses to all couples. Kaplan said they have not heard from Hood County Clerk Katie Lang, and her office would not say whether it is issuing same-sex licenses.

With a population of 53,921 people, Hood County is the most populous county among those still refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Texas counties’ responses to the Supreme Court’s ruling varied between those that immediately began issuing marriage licenses and those that took a few days to come around. But two weeks after the high court’s ruling, at least six counties are likely refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, according to Texans for Marriage.

The other holdout counties as of July 7 were Dallam and Roberts counties in the Panhandle; Irion, Hartley and Loving counties in West Texas; and Hamilton County, located between Austin and Fort Worth.

(Of Texas’ 254 counties, three counties have not been reached and 13 counties are planning to issue marriage licenses after “software changes” or receipt of updated marriage certificates, according to Texans for Marriage.)

On Thursday, a deputy clerk in Roberts County told The Texas Tribune that the clerk’s office would issue licenses if requested by a same-sex couple.

Hartley County Clerk Melissa Mead said her office won’t issue same-sex marriage licenses until the clock runs out on the 25 days that parties in the Supreme Court case have to ask for a rehearing of the case.

A deputy clerk for Loving County said her office was awaiting further direction from the attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the only guidance from the state’s top lawyer was the written opinion issued June 28, which said county clerks with religious objections can opt out of issuing same-sex marriage licenses but they should be prepared to get sued.

Calls to Dallam and Hamilton went unanswered.

See here and here for background on Hood County. Next in line appears to be Irion County, and after that who knows. Actually, what could happen is more lawsuits in the same places as before:

A judge’s ruling in the Hood County case would likely only apply to those parties in that county, said Alexandra Albright, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. If the case went to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — which has appellate jurisdiction over federal courts in Texas — then any ruling would apply to the entire circuit, Albright added.

Now that the Hood County gay couple has obtained a marriage license, a federal judge may not immediately rule on the broader issue of whether the Hood County clerk’s delay “caused constitutional damage,” so other same-sex couples would likely have to file their own lawsuits, said Meg Penrose, a law professor at Texas A&M University.

“If this is not a class action, other individuals that are denied marriage licenses will need to sue on their own behalf or wait for a class action to be filed,” Penrose said. “This could become costly for the county [or] clerk as individual lawsuits could mount quickly.”

Kaplan, the attorney for the Hood County gay couple, said Texas lawyers were keeping an eye on “lawless clerks” and would likely take action if clerks continued to believe “there’s some justification for failing to issue the licenses.”

“We’ll see what happens when that comes to head,” he added.

One would think that repeated litigation over the same thing might make a recalcitrant County Clerk less popular. I understand that Katie Lang’s husband Mike is a candidate to succeed Jim Keffer in HD60, so this could quickly become an election issue. As the man said, we’ll see.

West Texas

Not many people want to live in West Texas any more.

The 2010 Census confirmed what anyone passing through the scrublands of West Texas already knew: People are leaving, and no one is taking their place, even with oil at more than $100 a barrel. The people who remain often drive an hour or more to visit a doctor, buy a pair of jeans or see a movie.

So you might wonder why anyone is still there, in this place where natural beauty is defined by dry creek beds and scraggly mesquite, where public transit is a school bus and Starbucks is a punch line.

“The greatest sunsets. The stars are just right there. You hear the coyotes howling,” says Billy Burt Hopper, sheriff of Loving County, home to 82 people and the least-populated county in the United States.

“It’s the last frontier.”

Texas recorded the largest population growth in the nation over the past decade, adding 4.5 million people for a total of 25.1 million. But 79 of its 254 counties lost people, all but a handful of them west of Interstate 35. Even more would have lost population if not for the decade’s phenomenal Latino growth; the number of Anglos declined in 162 Texas counties, including much of West Texas and the Panhandle.

The shift to the state’s cities and suburbs has been happening since at least the 1960s, as people died or moved away from the vast emptiness of the west and the endless stretches of the Panhandle.

I’m a city boy, so that kind of lifestyle has no appeal to me, but to each their own. I just wonder what the minimum population level for sustainability is. Will we look back in 20 or 30 years and see that some of these towns no longer exist because it became practically impossible to live there? The school districts out there are heavily threatened by the budget cuts. What happens if some of them fall apart as a result?