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Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

As expected.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chron adds some details.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

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.

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.

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.

It was Abbott all along

Who was behind that botched voter purge that caused now-former Secretary of State David Whitley to not get confirmed by the Senate? Greg Abbott, that’s who.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two top officials at the Department of Public Safety named Gov. Greg Abbott’s office as a driving force in the state’s program to purge nearly 100,000 suspected non-U.S. citizens from Texas’ voter rolls, emails made public Tuesday show.

Abbott’s office, however, on Tuesday denied it had any contact with the agency before the launch of the effort in late January.

[…]

The emails were made public Tuesday by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, which represented plaintiffs who sued the state.

In an August 2018 email, John Crawford, a top official of the driver license division at the Texas Department of Public Safety, told employees that DPS had previously turned over records to compare with state voter rolls, and “we have an urgent request from the governor’s office to do it again.”

That same day, the director of the driver license division, Amanda Arriaga, wrote in a separate email that “the Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible.”

In a statement, Abbott denied talking to the Department of Public Safety about the issue until March of this year.

“Neither the Governor, nor the Governor’s office gave a directive to initiate this process,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman. “No one speaks for the Governor’s office, but the Governor’s office.”

Sure is amazing what you can find out when public records are made public, isn’t it? There’s a reason why Ken Paxton is fighting the release of other SOS files so hard. Abbott’s flunky can claim that the DPS spokesperson doesn’t speak for Abbott, but I think we all know she didn’t make that rationale up on her own. Glen Maxey was right: A scheme like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. One way or another, it comes from the boss. We just now have some documentation to back that up. The Statesman and Think Progress have more.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey weighs in.

The SOS voter purge may be over, but Ken Paxton is unaccounted for

Keep an eye on this.

Best mugshot ever

After the judge approved the settlement, the original list of voters was scrapped. Under the agreement, Texas officials now will only flag names of people who have said they’re not citizens after they have registered to vote.

[Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project,] said the settlement requires that he and the other plaintiffs be able to oversee how the state carries out this more limited voter investigation.

“We get numbers of people that have been matched, so that we can tell if there is something that appears to be going wrong in the process,” he said.

[…]

But there’s one issue that wasn’t dealt with: Attorney General Ken Paxton’s plans.

When the original voter removal effort was announced, Paxton – the state’s top prosecutor – said he would “spare no effort in assisting” with those cases.

Because of that, plaintiffs named him in their lawsuits. A federal judge removed him, however, because he doesn’t have the power to actually cancel voter registrations.

Perales said it’s unclear what Paxton will do following the settlement.

“Ken Paxton has said contradictory things about this voter purge that came out of the Texas Secretary of State’s office,” she said.

For example, when lawmakers raised questions about the state’s effort earlier this year, Paxton said he didn’t have the time or resources to go through the list and investigate people.

“At the same time, Ken Paxton’s office has claimed that they are still investigating – or doing some kind of investigation – of registered voters who may be non-U.S. citizens,” Perales said.

Paxton’s Office also has been shielding documents related to the voter-removal effort from public view.

In a letter to media organizations and others, the open records division of his office has said, “the information at issue relates to an open criminal investigation conducted by the [Office of the Attorney General’s] Election Fraud Section of the Criminal Prosecutions Division. Further, the OAG states release of the information at issue would interfere with the pending investigation.”

See here for the background. I was wondering about this myself when the settlement terms were announced. It goes without saying that Ken Paxton cannot be trusted. If he has the opportunity to press forward with any of these cases, on whatever grounds, he will. I strongly suspect that all of the attorneys for the plaintiffs will need to keep their evidence files close at hand, ready to whip out for a new motion when and if Paxton strikes. Do not let him try to make wine from the fruit of the poisoned tree.

On a side note, this story also addresses the question of why the state settled instead of appealing, as they usually do:

Gonzalez said he thinks state officials did that partly because the legal challenge was looming over Whitley’s confirmation as secretary of state. He had only recently been appointed when he announced the voter list. Gonzalez said state officials backed off when Senate Democrats vowed to block his confirmation.

“Their opposition to the nomination, we believe, is [part of what] provided the leverage for the state to be willing to settle this in the first case, because the state doesn’t settle voting rights cases like this,” he said.

Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have helped, but I can see the logic. I still feel like there was more to it than this, but I can believe this was a factor.

Settlement officially reached in lawsuits over bogus SOS advisory

Great news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Three months after first questioning the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, the Texas secretary of state has agreed to end a review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens that was flawed from the start.

The deal was announced Friday as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges brought by more than a dozen naturalized citizens and voting rights groups against the state. The groups alleged that the voter citizenship review, which was launched in late January, was unconstitutional and violated federal protections for voters of color.

Secretary of State David Whitley — who has yet to be confirmed by the Texas Senate amid the fallout over the review — agreed to scrap the lists of registered voters his office had sent to county voter registrars for examination. Whitley’s office will instruct local officials to take no further action on the names of people it had classified as “possible non-U.S citizens,” and county officials will be charged with notifying voters who received letters demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

The state is also on the hook for $450,000 in costs and attorney fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The agreement must still be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, and the state will have five days after the judge dismisses the plaintiffs’ legal claims to officially rescind the list. But the settlement amounts to a profound defeat for the state leaders who had defended the review even though it had jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens.

“Today’s agreement accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens,” Whitley said in a statement Friday. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders in the election community to ensure this process is conducted in a manner that holds my office accountable and protects the voting rights of eligible Texans.”

See here for the background. I thought at the time that this was a resounding defeat for the state of Texas, and I very much still think that. Honestly, I’m stunned that the state gave up like this instead of taking their chances with the ever-pliable Fifth Circuit. Did they think their case was such a loser that even the Fifth Circuit wouldn’t bail them out? It’s mind-boggling. Anyway, here are the statements from the various plaintiffs in the suit, courtesy of the ACLU’s press release:

“After months of litigation, the state has finally agreed to do what we’ve demanded from the start — a complete withdrawal of the flawed and discriminatory voter purge list, bringing this failed experiment in voter suppression to an end,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “The right to vote is sacrosanct, and no eligible voter should have to worry about losing that right. We are glad that the state has agreed to give up this misguided effort to eliminate people from the voter rolls, and we will continue to monitor any future voter purge attempt by the state to ensure that no eligible Texan loses their voice in our democracy.”

“Three months after the state released a discriminatory and flawed voter purge list, they have finally agreed to completely withdraw the advisory that risked throwing tens of thousands of potentially eligible voters off the rolls,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “State officials have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and struck fear and confusion into thousands of voters in order to pursue their voter suppression agenda. We are glad that this particular effort was stopped in its tracks and we will remain vigilant to ensure that not one single voter loses their right to vote due to the actions of state officials.”

“While we are glad to see this program scrapped, it’s important to remember that the state not only began to disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters, but also threatened them with criminal prosecution,” said Brendan Downes, associate counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project. “Naturalized citizens are, by definition, Americans. It’s time for the state to start treating them that way.”

“Secretary Whitley’s agreement to scrap what the court called a ‘ham-handed’ process and implement these common sense changes will go a long way to protecting eligible naturalized citizens from being improperly purged from the rolls,” said Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We will continue to monitor the secretary and counties to protect eligible Texas voters from discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.”

“This settlement acknowledges that naturalized Americans have full and equal voting rights — they cannot be singled out and purged from the rolls due to their status,” said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos. “The settlement is a victory for our clients and all in Texas who were wrongfully deemed ineligible to vote. The secretary’s actions were reckless and misguided, and we hope that other states will take note and avoid similar unlawful actions.”

“The League regrets that it took a lawsuit to remind our state officials that naturalized citizens have a right to vote and to fully participate in our democracy,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. “We are hopeful that new procedures will prevent naturalized citizens from being treated as second class citizens. We will continue to work with the secretary of state, as the chief election officer for Texas, to protect all citizens’ right to vote.”

“When the secretary of state tried to discriminate against eligible voters in a dangerous voter purge, we stood up to challenge this egregious act of voter suppression. Today, we won,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas Civic Fund. “Young naturalized citizens no longer have to worry about this reckless voter purge impacting their constitutional right to vote. We will continue to fight for all young voters across the state.”

The whole thing is also visible at the Texas Civil Rights Project webpage. The Secretary of State – who by the way still needs to be someone other than the deeply incompetent David Whitley – will still conduct reviews of voter rolls to look for non-citizens, it will just need to be done under this new framework. The one remaining question is what will happen with the voters whose names were referred to AG Ken Paxton for possible criminal investigation. We’ll just have to see what Paxton does – I can’t imagine him turning down an opportunity to grandstand, but he may be just smart enough to decline to pursue cases that will be tough to win given the questionableness of the evidence. With him, it could go either way. The Chron, the Dallas Observer, and Slate have more.

LULAC settles its SOS lawsuit

Good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The state of Texas is ending a program to purge voters it claimed were noncitizens in order to settle lawsuits brought by civil rights groups over the plan.

The deal was reached following a meeting Monday in San Antonio between acting Secretary of State David Whitley and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs.

The groups brought three separate lawsuits — filed in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston — alleging the program illegally targeted immigrant voters and resulted in voter intimidation. The suits were consolidated into one in San Antonio with the lead case, which was filed by LULAC and Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

As part of the deal, Whitley and his staff will tell county voter registrars and local election administrators to take no further action on any data files the state had sent them in late January, but may start a new program that won’t demand voters prove their U.S. citizenship.

[…]

As part of the settlement, the state will scrap the data it used for the first program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

The state will also work with LULAC and the other plaintiffs groups on the plan by sharing the methodology and data used.

The process will enable the state to remove voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, while being the least disruptive to those who are U.S. citizens, LULAC said.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As noted, both of the other two lawsuits were joined with this one, so what happens here is going to be the final word. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I was not able to find a copy of the settlement, but this sure looks like a big win for the plaintiffs. Honestly, just the fact that the state is settling and not taking its chances with the Fifth Circuit tells you something. Kudos to the plaintiffs for forcing some accountability into this mess.

UPDATE: It’s not fully done, but it’s close.

A deal was about “99 percent” done Monday, after Secretary of State David Whitley met in San Antonio with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs, said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel.

As part of the tentative agreement discussed Monday, the state would scrap the data it used for the first voter purge program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” Vera said. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

The parties were to return to the table Tuesday to hammer out additional terms before taking the final deal to a judge for review.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the secretary of state, said that while there is no official settlement yet, progress was made Monday.

“We are encouraged by the positive and constructive progress we have made with the plaintiffs, and we remain committed to our goal of maintaining accurate voter rolls while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on eligible Texas voters,” Taylor said.

Stay tuned.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Testimony ends in SOS advisory lawsuit

Now we wait for a ruling. We’ve already sort of gotten one, but it’s not all official yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As part of an ongoing flurry of litigation in federal court here over the state’s bungled citizenship review of its voter rolls, a federal judge on Monday told a handful of Texas counties they may not — for now — purge registered voters or send them letters demanding proof of citizenship.

Eight counties named in one of three pending lawsuits over the review effort agreed last week that they will not cancel any voter registrations as lawyers from a host of civil rights groups tangle with the state in court. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said from the bench Monday that the other counties named in a separate lawsuit should consider themselves restrained in the same way as litigation proceeds.

That doesn’t apply to the other 200-plus counties in the state, but “we expect all the counties are watching these proceedings,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups suing Texas and several counties.

[…]

Still to come from the judge’s chambers is a decision on civil rights groups’ broader requests to block the state from taking any further action related to the list as the lawsuits proceed. And the judge seemed at least somewhat amenable to that argument during a day of testimony that revealed fresh troubles with the state’s initial rollout of what it has come to characterize as “routine list maintenance activity.” Critics label it as an attempted widespread voter purge.

State officials conceded in federal court here Monday that a quarter of the nearly 100,000 voters flagged for citizenship review are naturalized citizens whose voter registration should never have been questioned in the first place.

And the list is only expected to get smaller, Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, acknowledged during cross-examination Monday.

The initial number shrank to about 74,000, Ingram explained, after “additional refinement” of data sourced from DPS, where Texans can register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses.

About half of the 25,000 flagged erroneously were what Ingram called “code 64s” — a bureaucratic tag indicating that the voters registered at DPS while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Since Texans have to present documentation, either as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident, to receive an identification card from the state, voters who registered at DPS would have demonstrated citizenship status.

The other half of the 25,000 “refined” off the flagged list had demonstrated citizenship to DPS but not registered to vote at the same time, Ingram said.

Before the original list was rolled out at the end of January, the state wasn’t aware it could utilize DPS data in order to narrow its target list, elections officials said Monday.

“I wish all of this could’ve been done back as the original effort,” Biery said. “Would you agree that all of this refinement would not have been done but for the sunshine light of the press and litigation?”

“The thing is that it’s the category of Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘unknown unknown’ — the things you don’t know you don’t know,” Ingram responded. “We didn’t know until the counties reported to us.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, sure, mistakes were made and all, but you know what made those mistakes so much worse? Handing the original, unvetted, known to be full of mistakes list to the rabid dogs at the AG’s office and then offer “these things happen” regrets when the Twitter crapstorms get unleashed. David Whitley is bad at his job – frankly, I’m not all that impressed with Keith Ingram, either – and everything he did made this worse. There were many ways in which this could have been handled in a more professional, less messy fashion. Maybe the next Secretary of State will be capable of doing that. The DMN has more.

Civil rights groups want Whitley to not be confirmed

No kidding.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

More than 30 civil rights and community groups are calling on Senate Democrats to block the confirmation of embattled interim Secretary of State David Whitley, who oversaw the botched rollout of an investigation into the citizenship of tens of thousands of Texas voters.

“Under no circumstances should Mr. Whitley be allowed to continue to serve as the Texas Secretary of State. The Senate Democratic caucus – and each of you individually – have the power to unite in defense of the voting rights of all Texans and stop his confirmation,” the groups wrote in a letter sent to Democratic senators on Thursday morning. “We call on you to affirmatively block the confirmation of David Whitley for Texas Secretary of State.”

[…]

“It has become exceedingly clear that Mr. Whitley is unfit to serve in that office,” the letter reads. “Mr. Whitley has targeted naturalized citizens for disenfranchisement and falsely accused them of committing voter fraud.”

The letter’s signatories, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Texas NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Democratic Party, took Whitley to task for being unable to answer questions during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Nominations Committee about how his office handled the advisory’s rollout.

“Mr. Whitley demonstrated an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the process he initiated,” the letter reads.

Calling Whitley’s conduct “disqualifying,” the groups said he “knew or had reason to know that a substantial number of these 58,000 Texas residents had not voted unlawfully, and still he sent the entire list to the Attorney General for criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

“Mr. Whitley’s actions demonstrate a level of incompetence that we cannot accept in a position tasked to protect and advance our most fundamental rights of civic participation,” the groups wrote.

I found a copy of the letter here. You will recognize a number of the signers as plaintiffs in the multiple lawsuits filed against Whitley and the SOS. Whitley’s confirmation remains in limbo as the Senate committee has yet to vote out his nomination following the hearing two weeks ago; it’s still pending after another no-action committee meeting on Thursday. It would take at least two Dems to vote for Whitley, assuming he gets unanimous Republican support, which maybe isn’t a sure thing given that he’s still pending in committee. And as of yesterday, every Dem Senator was on record opposing Whitley.

All 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate have publicly confirmed they are opposed to confirming embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, giving them more than enough votes to block his nomination if they’re all in the chamber when the vote comes up.

The tally of “no” verdicts from Senate Democrats hit a dozen on Friday, upping the ante on the minority party’s ability to block his path to confirmation if they all stick together. To be confirmed, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote in the 31-member chamber. But whether Whitley’s nomination will make it that far remains unclear.

[…]

If Whitley’s nomination is left pending for the rest of the session, he can serve only until the Legislature leaves Austin in late May. After that, Abbott could nominate a replacement who would immediately take over as secretary of state and serve at least until the next legislative session in 2021.

If the Senate votes and Whitley is rejected, he must leave office immediately.

Doesn’t look good for Whitley, does it? My guess at this point is that Whitley never comes up for a vote, and Abbott appoints someone else after the session. Basic competence for the task at hand, and not regularly insulting everyone’s intelligence, that’s all we’re asking here. This Twitter thread from the press conference has more.

SOS advisory lawsuit continues

From Day Two of testimony:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Despite a glaring error in the original data that questioned the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters, a state elections official defended the investigation in federal court Wednesday, saying some potential illegal activity has been uncovered and blaming several county officials for problems that have arisen.

Keith Ingram, head of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, said 43 people on the list of suspect voters contacted his agency and asked to have their voter registration canceled because they were not U.S. citizens.

“I believe some have voted,” he told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery during a hearing into efforts by civil rights groups and an affected voter to halt the investigation as an error-riddled effort that improperly singles out naturalized citizens.

An additional 37 people asked to be removed from the state list of registered voters but gave no reason for the request, Ingram said.

[…]

Under questioning by opposing lawyer Chad Dunn, Ingram admitted that his agency’s original list of 95,000 suspect voters included about 20,000 people who had shown proof of citizenship to the Department of Public Safety.

Ingram blamed the mistake on the DPS, saying officials originally indicated that the information was not reliable because it was self-reported by the 20,000 people, only to later say that each registered voter had provided the DPS with proof of citizenship.

Asked by Dunn if his agency had publicly acknowledged that “the 95,000 figure is wrong and ought to be reduced,” Ingram said it had not.

Ingram also blamed officials in several counties for jumping the gun by immediately sending investigation letters demanding proof of citizenship to registered voters on the suspect list, saying they failed to heed warnings from his office that the names needed to be investigated first.

Ingram acknowledged that state officials were aware that the list included an unknown number of naturalized U.S. citizens because of shortcomings in citizenship data provided by the DPS.

See here for more from Day One of the trial, in which we first observed the state strategy of blaming the local county administrators for this fine mess we’re in. Sure seems to me that a lot of this could have been avoided if 1) the SOS had been more clear in its advisory to counties that there were likely a lot of false positives, 2) SOS wannabe David Whitley hadn’t stoked the fire by immediately referring the whole known-to-be-deeply-flawed list to the Attorney General, and 3) the SOS had at least backed off its initial and highly problematic “95,000 suspect voters” claim. The fact that we’re here in federal court tells you all you need to know about that.

In the meantime, there was a bit of drama in that courtroom.

A federal judge weighing whether to block Texas’ effort to investigate the citizenship of tens of thousands of people on its voter rolls said he wants to hear from a secretary of state employee who abruptly resigned from the office.

Betsy Schonhoff ran a nearly yearlong effort to match the state’s voter lists with databases at the Department of Public Safety for people who had obtained driver’s licenses when they weren’t citizens.

But she has not been served a subpoena, and there is evidence that she has been “evading service for five days,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for Julie Hilberg, a naturalized citizen whom the investigation flagged for review.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery made it clear he wanted to hear Schonhoff’s testimony in his San Antonio court, saying he knows U.S. marshals “who are very good at finding people.”

“She’s going to be here,” he said.

Late Wednesday, the Texas Attorney General’s office pushed back on the plaintiff’s characterization of efforts to reach Schonhoff.

“It’s our office’s understanding that, despite not having been served, the former employee of the Secretary of State’s office is willing to voluntarily appear at the next scheduled hearing and will do so,” Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.

That next hearing will be today, and I for one would also like to hear what Ms. Schonhoff has to say.

Later in that first story, we learn that the lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi by MALDEF on behalf of seven naturalized citizens has been consolidated with this one. The third lawsuit, filed in Galveston by a coalition of civil rights groups who had initially demanded that the advisory be rescinded, will also have a hearing today following a phone conference on Wednesday to address a state request to fold this into the current suit as well. That’s pretty common – there were many lawsuits relating to the 2011/2013 redistricting that were eventually all joined into one action – but the plaintiffs may oppose the motion and there may be reasons to keep them separate. We shall see. In the meantime, MALDEF has already come out swinging.

Lawyers for two Texas naturalized citizens who landed on the state’s list of “potential noncitizen voters” are re-urging a federal court to block state and county attempts to remove people from voter rolls before their clients lose their right to vote next week.

In a Thursday filing, Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in San Antonio that the “situation is urgent and requires the Court’s immediate intervention.”

“If they do not comply with the purge letter’s demand and provide proof of U.S. citizenship they will lose their right to vote on March 2, 2019,” the filing says.

The two clients, identified as Jane Doe #1 and John Doe #1, received letters in late January from Smith County, where they are registered to vote, asking them to verify their citizenship within 30 days or be taken off the voter rolls. Jane Doe #1 is a college student who has an internship in Austin through the end of May and can’t return home to procure the documents, according to the filing.

John Doe #1 said “he does not want to be treated like a second class citizen” simply because he is naturalized and “will not go through Smith County’s additional steps and requirements” because he has already proven his citizenship, the filing said.

You can see that brief here. I’m hopeful that the plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, though whether it would stand up on appeal is a more fraught question. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as always.

First day in court for SOS advisory lawsuits

First day for the first lawsuit, one of three filed against that bogus SOS advisory.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge in San Antonio will hear arguments Tuesday in one of three legal challenges to the state’s initiative to purge tens of thousands of Texans from voter rolls who officials claim are not U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery will hear a request by a group headed by the League of United Latin American Citizens seeking a court order to block the plan. LULAC and others say many of the people targeted by the rollout were wrongly placed on the purge lists.

The state, in court records, defends the initiative as necessary. The hearing could last much of Tuesday, and possibly into Wednesday, but the judge is not expected to issue an immediate ruling.

[…]

LULAC’s suit said the initiative amounts to a discriminatory “witch hunt” targeting mostly Hispanic voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Campaign Legal Center joined the suit, adding constitutional concerns. The groups also filed a request to turn it into a class-action lawsuit for others who might be wronged.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund later filed a separate suit in Corpus Christi, which contends that state officials singled out naturalized citizens because they were born outside the country. A coalition of other groups — MOVE Texas Civic Fund, Jolt Initiative, League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP of Texas — filed a third lawsuit in Galveston to prevent the purge, saying Texas officials are treating those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens. Both lawsuits are pending.

See here for more on the LULAC lawsuit, and here and here for the other lawsuits. The Trib filed a story later in the day with more details about what happened so far.

Facing three federal lawsuits challenging the legality of Texas’ efforts to review the citizenship of 98,000 registered voters, a top lawyer for the state opened up his defense in one of the cases by claiming the state had not made any mistakes or imposed unconstitutional burdens on certain voters in rolling out the review. Actually, he argued, it was certain county election officials who had acted “contrary to state law.”

In a federal courthouse Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Chris Hilton repeatedly questioned why two local election officials — Kerr County Tax Assessor Bob Reeves and Blanco County Tax Assessor Kristen Spies — immediately sent voters who were flagged by the state letters demanding that they prove their citizenship in order to remain on the voter rolls. Hilton said counties should have first reviewed their lists to determine whether they had reason to believe a voter was ineligible.

The two voter registrars told the court their staff was simply following the state’s instructions — laid out in an official election advisory — on how to determine if those individuals were in fact U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote. In her reading of the state’s advisory, in which state election officials repeatedly noted they had worked to provide counties with “actionable information,” Spies said she believed that meant “that we should work the list.” She was echoed by Reeves, who indicated the state’s decision to flag those voters gave them enough reason to move forward with those notices.

[…]

Hilton contended the secretary of state had merely told counties they had the choice to investigate the voters or take no action — not immediately send out notices.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Reeves, I think your staff has acted contrary to state law,” Hilton told Reeves, who oversees the county’s voter rolls and whose staff sent out 68 proof-of-citizenship letters the day the county received its list of voters from the state.

[…]

Chad Dunn, one of Hilberg’s attorneys, followed Hilton’s questioning by projecting a copy of the secretary of state’s advisory onto a large screen in the courtroom and reading from the part of the document that indicated that state officials “believe” the data they provided “can be acted on in nearly all circumstances.”

“Is a reasonable reading of that sentence that this list of voters is ready to be sent notices without any further steps?” Dunn asked.

“Based on this, yes,” Reeves responded.

Dunn then asked what effect a combination of that advisory and the statements made by top Republican officials about supposed voter fraud had on Reeves’ understanding of whether he needed to send those notices.

“To the best of my knowledge, that’s why my office sent that out,” Reeves said.

Classy move by the state, blaming the local officials for the SOS’s actions. The case continues today, and we probably won’t get an immediate ruling. And whatever happens here, those other lawsuits are out there as well.

SOS advisory lawsuit update

Add another plaintiff, litigate till done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A naturalized citizen — who immigrated to Texas from the United Kingdom and is a registered voter — is joining a Latino civil rights group in suing top Texas officials after her voter registration was flagged by the state for a citizenship check.

Signing onto a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, Atascosa County resident Julie Hilberg on Friday alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s move to question the legality of tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas was an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the right to vote.

Hilberg — who also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens in its claims that Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton have violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights that prohibits the intimidation of voters — added her name to the suit, but she is also seeking to represent all of the legitimately registered voters who appear on the state’s list as a plaintiff class.

“The burden imposed by Defendant Whitley’s new voter purge program — both the current list of 95,000 registrants flagged for potential removal and the plan to continue this practice on a monthly basis — imposes a severe and plainly discriminatory burden on naturalized citizens who wish to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint reads.

[…]

After learning about the citizenship checks in the news, Hilberg on Thursday went to the local elections office with her naturalization certificate in hand to figure out if she was among those voters.

Hilberg suspected she would be on the list because she had most recently renewed her driver’s license in 2014 — the year before she took her oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in San Antonio. She had registered to vote in Atascosa County in June 2015, and then voted in several elections from 2016 to 2018.

When Atascosa County’s election administrator, Janice Ruple, confirmed Hilberg was on the list they had received from the state, Hilberg assumed any questions about her citizenship status would be resolved in that moment because Ruple knows Hilberg — and her citizenship status — personally, according to the complaint.

Instead, “Ms. Ruple was unable or unwilling to give Ms. Hilberg any information or assurances about whether her registration would be in jeopardy because her name was on Defendant Whitley’s list,” the lawsuit reads.

See here for the background. I don’t know what difference it makes from a legal standpoint to include a plaintiff who was directly affected, but I presume it can’t hurt. Ms. Hilberg was done wrong, and she deserves redress for it.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Trump administration opposes Section 3 oversight

I mean, duh.

In the latest about-face on voting rights under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice no longer supports efforts to force Texas back under federal oversight of its electoral map drawing.

In legal filings this week, the Justice Department indicated it would side against the voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who want a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio to require Texas to seek pre-approval of its legislative and congressional maps, given previous maps that the federal judges ruled discriminatory.

“The United States no longer believes that [federal supervision] is warranted in this case,” federal attorneys said in their filing to the court.

[…]

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department sided with those challenging the state’s maps as discriminatory. But last year, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler joined state attorneys in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas’ current congressional and state House maps, which were adopted in 2013, were legally sound.

In approving the state’s current maps, the high court in June wiped out a ruling by the San Antonio panel that found the maps were tainted with discrimination that was meant to thwart the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office. But seemingly left untouched were previous findings of intentional discrimination at the hands of the state lawmakers who first redrew the state’s maps in 2011.

The state’s opponents are now pointing to some of those 2011 violations in asking the San Antonio panel to consider returning Texas to federal guardianship of its maps.

“In a jurisdiction like Texas, which has consistently engaged in intentional discrimination since its inception, and which year after year attempts to sharpen and hone its ability to violate the law in more covert and artful ways, the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the laws requires the imposition” of federal supervision, the opponents said in a November filing.

See here for the background. The only reason the Trumpies hasn’t opposed this before now is because there hadn’t been a filing by the plaintiffs before. They’re consistent when it comes to opposing voting rights, that’s for sure. As you know, I don’t have any faith in SCOTUS to do the right thing, but you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Moving forward on Section 3

There’s still redistricting litigation action happening.

Late Friday afternoon, the coalition of voting rights groups that have fought the state for fairer legislative districts since the last round of redistricting in 2010 filed a pair of new briefs with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. They seek to have the state forced back into federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

States subject to the VRA’s preclearance provision must seek and receive federal approval for any changes they make to any law that applies to voting. Texas has been free from the requirement since 2013, when the Supreme Court cleared the list of states subject to preclearance, but could be placed back on the naughty list if federal courts determine that the state is intentionally discriminatory in its voting laws.

The groups argue that returning Texas to preclearance status for at least the next five years is the only thing that will stop state legislators from drawing unconstitutional district boundaries during the state’s next round of redistricting following the 2020 elections.

“[T]his vital, but time-limited remedy — this Court’s imposition of a preclearance requirement and retention of jurisdiction — is the most statutorily appropriate and equitable action that can ensure the State’s next redistricting plans do not discriminate against minority voters, particularly in light of this Court’s identification of the recent intentional discrimination employed by the State in redistricting and the persistent pattern of discriminatory governmental action in Texas directed at minority voters for generations,” the plaintiffs write.

[..]

“The Supreme Court held that the discriminatory intent of the 2011 legislature was erroneously imputed to the 2013 legislature, it left the findings of intentional discrimination as to the 2011 plans untouched, ‘express[ing] no view on the correctness of this holding,’” the plaintiffs, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, write. “This Court’s findings of intentional discrimination in the 2011 Congressional and State House plans remain in place, and these findings — coupled with Texas’s persistent history of continued intentional discrimination — amply justify Plaintiffs’ request for relief under Section 3(c) [of the Voting Rights Act].”

See here and here for the background. The joint plaintiffs and Quesada plaintiffs’ petition for relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act is here, the Task Force plaintiffs’ request is here, and every legal document associated with the case is here; scroll all the way to the bottom to see the most recent stuff. I haven’t seen any other news about these filings, so I guess this subject isn’t as sexy as it once was. Understandable, given the SCOTUS vandalism to the Voting Right Act, not to mention the likelihood of success, but this is still important. The state has till January 15 to respond. I’ll keep an eye on it.

From the “Answering my own rhetorical question” department

Nobody could have seen this coming!

Best mugshot ever

Ever since Texas’s “sanctuary cities” ban was first proposed in late 2016, the measure’s Republican backers have painted it as a public safety measure targeting criminals — without racist or anti-immigrant intent. But records obtained by the Observer reveal that some of the Texas citizens most supportive of the law apparently never got the memo.

Senate Bill 4, among other things, threatens local law enforcement officials who impede cooperation with federal immigration agents with fines, jail time and removal from office. To prosecute wayward officials, the law requires citizens to report violations of SB 4 to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Ken Paxton formally began accepting complaints in September, but the records include a stream of phone calls and emails beginning last February. Of 43 total formal and informal complaints so far, most veered wildly from SB 4’s supposed intent, expressing instead resentment of immigrants and even threatening violence.

“These comments are disturbing to read,” said state Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat and staunch SB 4 opponent. Rodríguez called them part of a general shift toward viewing immigrants in a “national security framework” rather than a human rights one, adding that “during the SB 4 debate, we warned that the attorney general would receive frivolous, anti-immigrant complaints such as these.”

See here for the background, and click over for the entirely predictable stream of garbage that ensued. In a world where Ken Paxton felt shame he would no doubt be red-faced over this, but we do not live in that world. I don’t know what else there is to say.

One other thing:

Out of the dozens who communicated with Paxton’s office, only five followed the guidelines laid out in SB 4 by swearing their complaints before a notary or submitting an “unsworn declaration.” Four of the five centered on a high-profile incident involving San Antonio Police Chief William McManus — currently the focus of the only investigation of a potential SB 4 violation.

In late December, an SAPD officer encountered what appeared to be 12 immigrants being smuggled into the country in an 18-wheeler. When McManus arrived on the scene, he made the unusual decision to charge the truck’s driver using a state smuggling statute rather than turn him over to the feds. After questioning, McManus released the immigrants to a local nonprofit, effectively shielding them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

That set off a firestorm: The head of the local police union called for McManus to be put on administrative leave; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged Paxton to investigate whether McManus violated SB 4; and Paxton informed city officials on January 10 that he had received “several” complaints and was launching an investigation.

But will anything come of this taxpayer-funded investigation? SB 4 — which is still being fought over in the courts — forbids any local policy that bans or “materially limits” cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, and forces jailers to extend detention of undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE.

McManus says his choice was an isolated decision that didn’t represent a new policy and that an ICE agent had every opportunity to intervene and take the individuals into custody. An ICE spokesperson has contradicted that, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the agency offered assistance and was rebuffed.

Vera, the LULAC attorney, said that the chief’s decision wouldn’t violate SB 4 because it didn’t represent a policy of non-cooperation. “[Paxton] doesn’t have a case,” he told the Observer. “If he had a case, he would’ve filed it already.”

See here for the background. Sometimes it’s just better to think of this all as a third-rate costume drama, available for streaming at CBS All Access or some such. Just let go and lean into the absurdity.

Electoral College lawsuit filed

I’m not sure about this.

Saying Texas’ current practice is discriminatory, a group of Hispanic activists and lawyers has sued the state in hopes of blocking it from awarding all of its Electoral College votes to one candidate during presidential elections.

The lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday calls on Texas to treat voters “in an equal manner” by abolishing that “winner-take-all” approach, which all but two states use. The suit, filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens and a coalition of Texas lawyers, says that approach violates the U.S. Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It’s just one of many pending voting rights lawsuits arguing that Texas, which regularly votes Republican, has illegally discriminated against voters of color.

Similar Electoral College lawsuits were also filed Wednesday in Republican-dominated South Carolina and Democratic-leaning Massachusetts and California. The South Carolina suit also alleges a Voting Rights Act violation.

At the suit’s core is the doctrine of “one person, one vote,” rooted in the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs argue that the winner-take-all system is unconstitutional because Texans who favor losing candidates “effectively had their votes cancelled,” while voters who favor winning candidates see their influence “unconstitutionally [magnified].” The suit also alleges that winner-take-all violates the First Amendment.

[…]

Lawyers have asked the court to declare the winner-take-all approach unconstitutional and set “reasonable deadlines” for state authorities to propose an alternative system.

The winner-take-all method is nearly ubiquitous — only Maine and Nebraska use other systems. If the plaintiffs were to prevail in their cases, the potential impact on presidential elections would be huge. But it’s unclear how far the cases will go.

I mean, if the end goal here is to abolish the Electoral College and install a straight-up popular vote for President, I’m cool with that. There are political efforts underway to achieve this, such as National Popular Vote that I think are both more promising and more broad-based, but it’s been around for awhile and still has a long way to go. If however the goal is to replace the current system with some other kind of proportional Electoral College system, such as the EVs-by-Congressional-district or EVs-as-a-percentage-of-the-state-vote, then count me out. Both of those are too convoluted, and in the Congressional case subject to its own set of shenanigans, and neither to my mind addresses the “one person one vote” complaint in a satisfactory fashion. The problem isn’t that the Electoral College is broken and needs fixing, the problem is that it was a bad and undemocratic idea to begin with. That’s a worthy goal, and one I support.

Redistricting trial week begins

This will be the main event of the week.

Eight months ahead of the 2018 primaries, Texas and its legal foes on Monday will kick off a week-long trial that could shake up races across the state.

The state and minority rights groups have been squabbling for six years over new political district boundaries drawn following the 2010 census. As part of a long-winding legal battle, a panel of three federal judges this week will reconvene in a federal courthouse here to consider the validity of the state’s political maps and whether changes should quickly be made to the state’s House and Congressional boundaries ahead of the midterm elections. At issue is whether the current boundaries violate the voting rights of millions of Texans of color.

The showdown comes months after the panel of judges found fault with the state’s 2011 drafts of the political maps. In a pair of rulings this spring, the judges also found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting them.

Those rulings did not require an immediate remedy because the state has been running elections since 2013 under court-drawn maps that were crafted amid an election scramble and later adopted by the Legislature.

But the judges are now turning their attention to the existing boundaries.

There’s an overview of how we got here and what is at stake in that story and also in this Statesman story, which notes the time factor:

Don’t expect immediate gratification. When the trial closes Friday or Saturday, the judges will take the matter under advisement — though a written ruling is expected relatively quickly as the court labors under looming election deadlines.

State officials have advised the court that any new maps would have to be ready by around Oct. 1 to meet deadlines for setting precinct lines and to allow candidate filing for the 2018 primaries to begin, as scheduled, in mid-November. Complicating the timing will be the inevitable appeal that the losing side will make directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If new maps are needed, the judges likely will order additional input on how to redraw district boundaries, lawyers said Friday.

The maps in question are the Congressional and State House maps that were implemented in 2013. Those maps in turn are basically identical to the interim maps created in 2011 after preclearance was rejected; the Lege adopted them with a couple of tweaks. The state claims that since the current maps are based on ones that had been drawn by the court, they cannot be discriminatory. The plaintiffs note that the 2013 maps differ only a little from the 2011 maps, which were ruled to be discriminatory, and that many of the problematic elements of the 2011 maps exist in the same form in the 2013 maps. The trial this week is to answer the question whether the existing maps are discriminatory, and if so what should replace them and also should the state be bailed back into preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. This Brennan Center article explains it better than I just did, with more details.

Here’s the Trib Day One story. A couple of highlights:

With Texas becoming less white each day, lawyers for minority rights groups opened their push for new maps by parsing the state’s demographic growth, which shows that the population of eligible white voters has significantly declined since 2010.

When asked by federal district Judge Orlando Garcia how this relates to the 2013 maps, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ lawyer, Jose Garza, indicated it was proof that Texans of color don’t have proportional representation under the maps currently in place.

“Even today … minorities are underrepresented when measured against population data and population figures,” Garza said.

MALC also presented an alternative map to demonstrate that the state House boundaries could have been drawn in a way that minimized the slicing of municipalities and created additional “opportunity districts” where minority voters are able to select their preferred candidates.

Creating that type of district was not a legislative priority when the House took on redistricting in 2013; lawmakers only made “cosmetic changes” that didn’t “improve the overall map for minority opportunity,” former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer testified before the court.

In 2011, state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional maps following the 2010 census, but they were immediately challenged in court on the basis that they diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black voters. The court drew interim maps amid an election scramble, and the Legislature in 2013 moved to adopt them.

Martinez Fischer argued that efforts to improve those maps for minority representation were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“It was almost all upon deaf ears,” Martinez Fischer said.

All the plaintiffs’ briefs for the trial can be found here. The demonstration map mentioned in the story for the State House is H391, and C285 is for Congress, with the former drawn by MALC and the latter by MALC, LULAC, and the Perez plaintiffs. There more of these – go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us/, choose a Shaded Plan, change the Category to All, and scroll down. The last maps listed for each type will be the ones being shown in the trial. Michael Li of the Brennan Center is live-tweeting the trial, so follow along with him for the play-by-play. I’ll do my best to keep up as well.

ACLU files for injunction against SB4

From the inbox:

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas filed the first motion today to block the anti-immigrant and anti-law enforcement Texas Senate Bill (SB4) before it takes effect. This is the next step in the organization’s effort to strike down SB4.

The law, recently signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, strips localities and local law enforcement in the state of the authority to determine how to best use their limited resources to ensure the safety of their communities. The law also turns Texas into a “show me your papers” state. Law enforcement leaders throughout Texas and the country strongly oppose the law.

The motion, filed on behalf of the plaintiffs Texas LULAC and its members, the City of El Cenizo, the City’s Mayor Raul Reyes and Maverick County and elected officials of the County, asks the federal district court in San Antonio to fast track a ruling on the constitutionality of SB4. In this motion, the ACLU demonstrates that SB4 violates numerous fundamental constitutional rights and principles.

“Governor Abbott and his allies in the legislature enacted the harshest anti-immigration law in the country, ignoring the concerned voices of many Texans who stood in solidarity with our immigrant communities,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Not only will SB4 lead to wholesale racial profiling, it is so vaguely written that local officials and law enforcement agencies are essentially left to guess whether their policies and practices would violate the law. We’re proud to lead the charge on this important next step in the legal battle to keep this calamitous legislation from taking effect on September 1.”

“SB4 is patently unconstitutional. Under SB4, local authorities will be unable to serve their constituents,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Local officials won’t be able to keep Texans safe and will be forced to carry out harsh discriminatory policies that hurt their communities.”

The ACLU’s co-counsel are Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., LULAC’s National General Counsel, and Renea Hicks of the Law Office of Max Renea Hicks.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, submitted a declaration in support of the ACLU’s motion filed today. Gupta is a former head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

SB4 Application for Preliminary Injunction:
https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/sb4_application_for_preliminary_injunction_6.5.17.pdf

See here and here for the background. This occurred after the AG’s office filed a motion in the Austin court to consolidate the other anti-SB4 lawsuits with the lawsuit he filed to declare the law constitutional. Among other things, the courts are going to have to decide which of them will be the court in which all the action takes place. For now, there’s a lot of parallel activity going on. I can see this escalating quickly.

In the meantime, go read this NBC Latino story for the backdrop against which all this takes place.

Supporters of SB4 balk at suggestions the immigration enforcement law may foster racism or encourage discrimination, but as they try to enact it on Sept. 1, it will be impossible to ignore the state’s history of racism and the current challenges for Texans of Mexican descent.

Consider that, during the period from 1848 to 1928, at least 232 people of Mexican descent were killed by mob violence or lynchings in Texas — some committed at the hands of Texas Rangers, according to research by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, authors of “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States.” Texas led 12 states in killings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the authors solidly documented.

In addition, the effort to place Texas under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act was the genesis of the 1975 expansion of the act to extend its protections of voting rights of Latinos and other people who were then called “language minorities.”

More recently, Texas’ voter ID law, enacted in 2013, has been struck down in a series of court decisions that found it discriminatory.

Also, Texas’ education board only added Mexican-American studies as an elective course to its public school curriculum in 2014.

“For Texas it really has been a slow march to effective citizenship for Mexican-Americans,” said John Morán González, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at University of Texas at Austin.

Read the whole thing. You can argue with its premise or with the assertion that SB4 is racist, but you still have to grapple with the history. The DMN has more.

State files motion to combine all the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits

This isn’t a surprise, but there is a bit of a twist.

Best mugshot ever

In a filing late Thursday, Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal district court in Austin to absorb two other legal challenges that have been filed against the ban in San Antonio, which is seen as a friendlier venue toward opponents of the law.

In May, the city of El Cenizo became the first jurisdiction to file suit to block the ban. El Paso County followed a few weeks later.

But Texas had filed a pre-emptive lawsuit May 7 asking for the Austin district court to rule the ban constitutional. Because Texas had filed its suit first, Paxton argued in his motion, the cases should be tried in the court it had petitioned under a concept known as the “first-filed” rule.

“The El Paso case (in the San Antonio Division) and this case ask the courts to decide the same legal issues because they are essentially the same case,” Paxton wrote. “Since this case was first-filed, the interests of justice and judicial economy warrant consolidating these cases in the Austin Division.”

Because Texas had filed its suit first in the Austin Division, Paxton said, that court should determine whether other cases should be “dismissed, stayed, transferred or consolidated.”

Paxton also argued that the legal challenges in the San Antonio court should be stopped because the plaintiffs, which include El Paso and El Cenizo, had no connection to that jurisdiction.

“The proper venue for the El Paso case lies in Austin,” he wrote. “There is no substantial connection to San Antonio and plaintiffs sued the Governor and Attorney General in their official capacities. Suits against government officials in their official capacities should be brought in the division from where those officials primarily perform their duties.”

The motion could mean that jurisdictions and groups that had signed on to lawsuits as plaintiffs — like El Paso, El Cenizo and the League of United Latin American Citizens — will now become defendants in the state’s original suit.

[…]

Mimi Marziani, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project that is representing the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, said the state is trying to intimidate civil rights groups to make them wary of joining suits against the ban.

“It’s clear that Texas is seeking to punish civil rights organizations that have bravely stood up against the State and prevent additional groups from coming forward,” she said in a written statement. “Indeed, their lawsuit does not include any specific allegations against groups like our client.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume that Paxton will eventually amend his motion to encompass the San Antonio/Austin lawsuit as well. I Am Not A Lawyer, so it is not clear to me what the advantage to Paxton is in doing this, other than his apparent belief that the court he filed in is more amenable to his argument than the San Antonio court. Plaintiffs usually have some burden of proof on them, so you’d think that being the defendant would be the less onerous task, but again, I don’t know what I’m talking about, so any actual attorneys out there are encouraged to weigh in. I do believe that this is intended to intimidate any other potential litigants, though I don’t think it will be successful on that front. In any event, I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

ACLU joins first “sanctuary cities” lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project have joined the lawsuit challenging Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB4), which demands that local governments and their employees engage in federal immigration enforcement practices. The case, City of El Cenizo, Texas, et al. v. State of Texas, et al., was filed earlier this month on behalf of a group of local governments and law enforcement officials whose rights and ability to serve their own constituents are imperiled by SB4. The Plaintiffs include the City of El Cenizo, El Cenizo Mayor Raul L. Reyes, Maverick County, Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, Maverick County Constable Mario A. Hernandez, and the Texas State League of United Latin American Citizens (Texas LULAC).

“As the leader of a diverse community along the South Texas border, I am challenging SB4 because it will undo the decades of work to build trust with the immigrant community and to use our scarce resources to increase public safety. We will not be part of Trump’s deportation force,” said Raul Reyes, mayor of El Cenizo. “This lawsuit will give a voice to the people and families that live in fear because of SB4.”

“By joining as co-counsel for the City of El Cenizo, Mayor Reyes, and the other courageous plaintiffs who sued the state, we aim to protect the civil liberties of immigrant communities,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “The Constitution does not allow the State of Texas to enact laws that threaten immigrants and the local officials entrusted to protect them. Today, we assert our resistance to the state’s pervasive attacks on vulnerable people and say to Gov. Abbott, see you in court.”

“Under SB4, local authorities will lose control over public safety and Texans will suffer from discrimination because of the color of their skin, accents or background,” said Lee Gelernt, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project deputy director.

The El Cenizo lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division. The ACLU will serve as co-counsel with Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., LULAC’s National General Counsel, and Renea Hicks of the Law Office of Max Renea Hicks.

See here for the background. There is also the El Paso County lawsuit, which is different in nature due to a previous lawsuit settlement that may put El Paso in conflict with SB4. The city of San Antonio may get into the act in the near future, and once the pension reform bill is signed there will be pressure on Mayor Turner to address the issue as well. I’m happy to see as many lawsuits against this atrocity as possible.

First anti-“sanctuary cities” lawsuit filed

That was quick.

Senate Bill 4 has drawn its first lawsuit.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, Maverick County and the city of El Cenizo sued the state of Texas on Monday, claiming that SB 4 has failed to properly define a “sanctuary city,” and that the city and county — both on the border with Mexico — have kept their residents safe by choosing to operate as sanctuaries since 1999.

El Cenizo, in Webb County, has about 3,300 residents, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. The lawsuit claims that “Plaintiffs are safer when all people, including undocumented immigrants, feel safe when their local law enforcement officers can be trusted for reporting crimes or just speaking with them about issues in the community.”

[…]

El Cenizo and Maverick County’s lawsuit, filed in a San Antonio federal court, argues that the new law violates both the Texas and U.S. constitutions.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. As the story notes, this came one day after the pre-emptive lawsuit filed by Ken Paxton to get SB4 declared constitutional. That lawsuit named Travis County and the city of Austin as defendants, while this one was filed against Texas by Maverick County and the city of El Cenizo, which as KSAT notes has had a “safe haven” ordinance in place since 1999, which by some miracle has not put the entire state into mortal jeopardy. I am sure there will be more lawsuits to come, and I won’t be surprised if there are some conflicting rulings. It’s going to take some time to sort all this out.

Court rules several Congressional districts were illegally drawn

Bam!

Some of Texas’ 36 congressional districts violate either the U.S. Constitution or the federal Voting Rights Act, a panel of federal judges ruled Friday.

In a long-delayed ruling, the judges ruled 2-1 that the Texas Legislature must redraw the political maps it most recently used for the 2016 elections.

Specifically, they pointed to Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, takes in most of the Texas-Mexico border and is represented by Republican Will Hurd of Helotes; Congressional District 27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and Congressional District 35, a Central Texas district represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

The 166-page ruling by the San Antonio-based district was the latest in a complicated case that dates back to 2011, and comes just two election cycles away from the next U.S. Census — when the state would draw a new map under normal circumstances.

In 2013, the district court found evidence that lawmakers intentionally discriminated when redrawing the boundaries. But the U.S. Supreme Court soon complicated the case when it struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that had forced Texas to seek permission before making changes to election procedures.

But that didn’t end the legal battle. The U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs pressed on in the case, and Texas held elections using interim maps drawn by judges.

In its decision Friday, the court still found that “mapdrawers acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength or otherwise violated the Fourteenth Amendment” of the Constitution.

“The Court finds that this evidence persuasively demonstrates that mapdrawers intentionally packed [concentrated certain populations] and cracked [diluted certain populations] on the basis of race (using race as a proxy for voting behavior) with the intent to dilute minority voting strength,” U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the majority opinion.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals called the case moot under previous rulings, and he  sharply criticized the Justice Department.

Tale about a Friday news dump – I literally saw this on Facebook just before going to bed Friday night. We have been waiting forever for a ruling in this case. Note that this is only half of what we have been waiting for – there is still a ruling to come on the State House map, too. But for now, the status of the 2018 elections has changed. The Lone Star Project adds on.

The court singled out violations in the Corpus Christi region involving District 27 (Farenthold – R), in the South Texas/Border region involving District 23 (Hurd – R) and in the Austin to San Antonio region involving District 35 (Doggett – D). The Court also ruled that minority voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were illegally cracked under the 2011 map.

While it is too early to know exactly what changes will be made, it is fair to read the opinion as requiring that Hispanic voters put into Anglo-controlled CD27 in the current map must be returned to an effective Hispanic district, that Hispanic voting strength weakened in District 23 must be restored, and that District 35 in the Austin to San Antonio corridor will have to be modified to reunite minority voters in a far less fragmented district centered in Austin.

In Dallas/Fort Worth, the creation of District 33 (Veasey – D) in the current map may have resolved some of the blatant violations under the 2011 map; however, arguments will be made to repair remaining cracked Hispanic and African American neighborhoods in Dallas and Tarrant counties.

The ruling is a major victory for minority citizens and their advocates before the court. Minority advocacy groups including LULAC, NAACP, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and citizen plaintiff groups led by Congressman Marc Veasey and State Representative Eddie Rodriguez had the courage to challenge the GOP map and the tenacity to stay with a long and difficult court battle. Their efforts have defended and protected the voting rights of thousands of otherwise disenfranchised Texas citizens. The Lone Star Project has been engaged in the Texas redistricting battle from the onset and will continue to provide support to key plaintiffs in this important effort.

We should expect the San Antonio Court to schedule a hearing soon to discuss the additional deliberations needed to fully resolve the case and to reach a final remedy. It is also likely that Governor Greg Abbott will refuse give up Texas GOP efforts to protect a discriminatory redistricting process and will direct state attorneys to explore appeal options.

I’d say it’s not “likely” that Abbott appeals, it’s a 100% gold-plated certainty. Rick Hasen quotes from the majority decision to explain what that “minority voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were illegally cracked under the 2011 map” means:

Plaintiffs have established a § 2 violation, both in terms of intent and effect, in South/West Texas. Plaintiffs have shown that seven compact majority-HCVAP districts could and should be drawn there that would substantially address the § 2 rights of Hispanic voters in South/West Texas, including Nueces County. Defendants’ decision to place Nueces County Hispanic voters in an Anglo district had the effect and was intended to dilute their opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.

Meanwhile, race predominated in the drawing of CD35, and Defendants’ decision to place majority- in Travis County was not to comply with the VRA but to minimize the number of Democrat districts in the plan overall. Plaintiffs have established a Shaw-type equal protection violation with regard to CD35. Plaintiffs also establish a Shaw-type equal protection violation with regard to CD23. In addition, Defendants’ manipulation of Latino voter turnout and cohesion in CD23 denied Latino voters equal opportunity and had the intent and effect of diluting Latino voter opportunity. Nueces County Hispanics and Hispanic voters in CD23 have proved their § 2 results and intentional vote dilution claims. The configurations of CD23, CD27, and CD35 in Plan C185 are therefore invalid.

Plaintiffs fail to proffer a demonstration plan accompanied by sufficient evidence to demonstrate that additional compact minority districts could be drawn in DFW or Houston, taking into account traditional redistricting principles and communities of interest. However, they are not precluded from raising § 2 results claims with regard to Plan C235 during the trial on that plan. Plaintiffs have proved intentional vote dilution through packing and cracking in DFW and also establish a Shaw-type racial gerrymandering claim with regard to CD26, but not CD6. However, they fail to prove intentional vote dilution in the Houston area, and fail to prove that mapdrawers acted with racially discriminatory purpose when drawing the districts represented by the African-American Congresspersons.

Well, okay, we’ll need to see a proposed remedy to understand what that means, but the bottom line is that four districts could be directly affected – CDs 23, 26, 27, and 35 – with ancillary changes to some number of adjoining districts. In a subsequent post, Hasen provides some extra guidance to this decision.

2. Bail in. It probably is not obvious to those not steeped in this area, but the big fight here is not about these particular districts (although that is important) but whether Texas gets put back under Section 5 preclearance for up to 10 years. That is possible under Section 3, the “bail-in” provision of the VRA which gives a court the ability to impose preclearance after a finding of intentional race discrimination. That finding is here, and the case is still going to go forward on that issue (as well as some other issues). Further, the finding of intentional race discrimination will almost certainly be relied on if, as I expect, the trial court in the Texas voter id case, finds intentional racial discrimination and orders bail in. So this is huge. (The caveat is how a Trump DOJ would enforce such rights if Trump is still in office. I’m not optimistic, and there’s no appeal of a DOJ decision to grant preclearance. Preclearance of post-2020 redistricting will depend on who wins the 2020 presidential elections.)

3. Race or party. I have been writing a lot about the race or party question: what to do about claims of racial discrimination when, as in the American South, race and party are so closely correlated. The majority approach, is subtle and sophisticated on this question, and seems to fall mostly on the party as a proxy for race (“party as race”) approach to the question. When you make it harder for minority voters to exercise political power for your own political reasons (such as protecting incumbents or your party), this counts as intentional race discrimination. Judge Smith takes the “race or party” approach, and he believes he knows what’s “really” going on: this is all about party, rather than race. It is either blind to the realities or ignoring the fact that these two criteria are really inseparable in Texas.

4. The remedy and what comes next. The trial court does not order anything to happen right now. The parties will fight about the remedy. Likely Texas will get a chance to redraw districts with some deference to Texas as to that which is not a violation. The parties will fight over the plans. And this will get dragged out. But presumably there will be new maps in place for the 2018 congressional elections, unless the Supreme Court intervenes. I fully expect Texas to try to get the Supreme Court to intervene in the interim. At most these lines would last 2 elections, and then we are back to a new round of redistricting. And this shows what is lost by preclearance. We’ve now had three elections that arguably should never have taken place under these lines.

There’s more, so read the rest. If this case proceeds from here as the post-2003 redistricting litigation did, we will get a bunch of November of 2018 special elections in these Congressional districts, with the possibility of special elections in some number of redrawn State House districts as well. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, then you’re reading the wrong blog. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

Motion filed to compel redistricting ruling

From the Lone Star Project:

The major plaintiffs challenging the Texas congressional and State House boundaries filed a joint motion earlier today to compel the three-judge federal district court in San Antonio to finally issue a decision on their claims that the Texas maps adopted in 2011 are discriminatory in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. The motion can be viewed and downloaded here.

The current Texas congressional and State House maps are based on interim plans ordered by the Court in 2012; however, these plans retain many of the features that plaintiffs argue discriminate against Hispanic and African American voters – specifically in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, the border region, Travis County and Dallas/Fort Worth.

The motion lays out plainly that continued delay not only allows ongoing harm to minority voters but could prevent resolution of the case before a new census is taken:

“Plaintiffs make this request out of concern that without resolution of their claims regarding the 2011 redistricting plans for the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Congressional districts, redistricting plans adopted to disadvantage minority voters will not be completely remedied in time for yet another election in 2018. In addition, Plaintiffs fear that any further delay in the entry of judgment on their claims, when considering the remaining issues yet to be litigated and concomitant potential appeals, may be overlapped by the release of a new census in 2021. Thus, further delay may interfere with a final and complete resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims.”

A decision from the court is long overdue. It has been nearly six years since the complaints were initially filed and more than two years since the trial on the merits of the case concluded. Plaintiffs’ detail the degree to which the case has dragged on:

“The current status of this case has remained unchanged since the 2014 trial (now over 28 months) and since this Court’s order denying Plaintiffs a preliminary injunction. The litigants in this cause have had two trials totaling hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits and evidence. All pending issues have been briefed extensively. Plaintiffs have survived multiple attempts to dismiss this cause of action. There has been one interlocutory appeal and more contentious appeals loom on the horizon. It has been 2,063 days since the filing of this lawsuit. It has been 1,748 days since this Court ordered its second interim maps. It has been 758 days since final post trial briefing was filed in this cause. In the ensuing elections, more than 19 million votes have been cast in Texas general elections using maps that plaintiffs contend violate the United States Constitution and federal law.”

While expressing their understanding of the complexity of the case and the difficulty of the issues to be resolved, the plaintiffs make clear that they will seek relief in an appellate court if the District Court does not rule on the case by January 17, 2017:

“Plaintiffs therefore respectfully request an entry of judgment no later than January 17, 2017. Should no order be forthcoming from this Court in the near future, private plaintiffs will consider this motion effectively denied. In that event, we will have no alternative but to seek appropriate appellate review and relief directing this Court to take action by a date certain. Cf. Veasey v. Abbott, 136 S. Ct. 1823, 194 L. Ed. 2d 828 (2016) (in which the U.S. Supreme Court directed the Fifth Circuit to resolve the Texas photo ID challenge by a date certain and inviting the plaintiffs to return to the Court for relief if no decision was reached in the Fifth Circuit by the Supreme Court’s deadline).”

As a reminder, the trials over whether the Legislature discriminated against minority voters in redrawing legislative and Congressional districts ended in 2014. Over a year later, the plaintiffs unsuccessfully asked for the court to enjoin the state from using the existing districts in 2016. Back in July, the plaintiffs asked the court to issue a damn ruling already. It is beyond my comprehension why this is taking so long, but here we are. Maybe this motion will finally get something to happen.

UPDATE: The Trib’s Ross Ramsey has some harsh words for the judges.