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Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

By the way, we’re still counting votes here in Texas

In case you were wondering.

Harris County is still counting ballots, too, just like counties all across Texas. We’re not focused on that right now, because Texas went to President Donald Trump on election night. But more than 100 people are working around the clock inside NRG Arena, Harris County’s election headquarters.

Isabel Longoria, election administrator, walked us through what’s happening.

“Quite frankly, the process of democracy right now is about tedious accuracy,” that is being double-checked by a ballot board of made up of both Republicans and Democrats, Longoria said.

“A lot of it is just on a computer. So for the mail ballots, for example, you get a person’s signature from their application and the signature from the ballot and you have a Democrat and a Republican just saying, yes, yes, question. Yes, yes, question. And anything that’s questioned goes to a specialized team,” that will reach out to a specific voter to verify that all information on the ballot is correct, Longoria said.

“I can say our staff is running on fumes. We’ve been working 24/7,” Longoria said.

The whole process is being monitored by about a dozen poll watchers.

[…]

The Texas Election Code requires all 254 Texas counties certify their election results no later than 14 days after the election, or in this case, by Nov. 17.

What will happen is that the official canvass will be presented to Commissioners Court, at their November 17 meeting, and they will certify it at that time. Military and overseas ballots were still being received as of Monday, which was the deadline for that. There are no races at the county, state, or federal level in Harris County that are close enough for a recount, so once all the ballots are tallied, that will be that. The point is, ballots are still being counted right here in Texas. See this Twitter thread by the County Clerk for more.

Military ballots

When we talk about the deadline to print and send out mail ballots, we are specifically talking about ballots sent to active duty military personnel, which by federal law are to be sent out 45 days before Election Day to facilitate them being returned in a timely fashion.

The very people risking their lives to defend the nation are among those most likely to have their ballots left uncounted in the presidential election in November.

When nearly 1 million absentee ballots are sent to military and overseas Americans worldwide by Saturday — kicking off voting for the 2020 election — history shows many will never be returned in time, and a greater percentage will be rejected compared to the rest of the population.

“There’s just a high percentage of ballots that just don’t make it back in time,” said Texas State University’s Don Inbody, an expert on the history of military voting and author of The Soldier Vote. “They’re active duty military. They’re usually pretty busy so they are not going to be quite as efficient as you’d like them to be in getting their ballots back.”

That looms particularly large this year, as polls show military voters are more divided than ever on the presidential election and that they could have an impact on close races in states such as Texas, North Carolina and Florida.

[…]

Federal data shows that members of the military are less likely to vote than the civilian population. In 2018, only 26 percent of military members voted compared to 52 percent of the rest of the population. In that election, nearly half of all ballots sent out to military and overseas voters who requested them were never returned. And of those that were returned, nearly 6 percent were rejected by elections officials for various reasons according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Nationwide, about 1 percent of absentee ballots are rejected among the civilian population.

The biggest reasons for ballots being tossed out include them not being returned in time, problems with the voter’s signature and missing postmarks.

During the last presidential election in 2016, Texas elections officials sent out almost 30,000 ballots to uniformed military and their dependents stationed around the nation and worldwide. But just 60 percent were returned, one of the worst rates in the nation. Nationwide military voters returned ballots nearly 70 percent of the time in that presidential election, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

There’s more in the story, so go check it out. Military personnel who cast votes via absentee ballots in Texas can check their ballot status here.

Something I learned when I looked at the vote rosters from the primary runoffs is that military and overseas ballots are coded differently in that file than “regular” mail ballots are. By law, these ballots are counted if they are received up to five days after Election Day, as long as they were mailed by Election Day. That’s only true for military and overseas ballots. For the primary runoffs in Harris County, the number of these ballots was quite small, like 20 or so; I’d have to go back and look again to get an exact number, but it was in that neighborhood. Each ballot matters and we should make every reasonable effort to ensure that these ballots are received and returned and counted, but if the result in Texas comes down to these ballots then the race was super close to begin with.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.

“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”

He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.

Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”

During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”

[…]

Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”

Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

More angst over May elections

The Star Telegram adds to the litany of woe surrounding the upcoming changes to the state’s elections calendar.

Over three months, some voters would face a primary, followed by city and school elections, followed by primary runoffs, followed by city and school runoffs. And then, of course, the statewide and national general election next November.

“We have overlapping election cycles, and I am very concerned that voters are going to be confused,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick said. “With that confusion, it may impact turnout.”

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion,” agreed Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell. “You’ve got three elections that voters are showing up for in the space of about eight weeks.”

[…]

In Tarrant County, cities including Arlington, Haltom City and Keller and school districts including Fort Worth typically hold May elections in even-numbered years. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn originally told those entities that he didn’t have enough voting equipment to handle both the nonpartisan elections and the primary runoffs in May.

Almost immediately, officials with several local entities made clear that they didn’t like their options. Moving elections to November would mean placing nonpartisan and partisan races on the same ballot, a shift that some worry may negatively affect the tone of the nonpartisan races.

Holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years, as cities including Fort Worth do, also poses problems, especially for entities that stagger their council terms so that only some seats are on the ballot each year.

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said that he has heard from almost all the cities in his Northeast Tarrant precinct and that they are against moving their election dates.

“I see some real problems with forcing our government entities to change their elections,” Fickes said at a recent meeting.

I’m not exactly sure what the problems are with holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years. One presumes they would have existed before now but were somehow coped with; the point is that the issue of primary runoffs being too close to them would not arise. Frankly, for any affected city that has two or four year municipal terms, I’d say that’s the best solution if moving those elections to November is undesirable. Cities whose Council terms are three years, like Austin, remain screwed, but you can’t have everything.

For what it’s worth, as recently as the 2003-2004 election cycle, the uniform election calendar was much busier than it is now. There were uniform election dates in January and September – the constitutional amendment election of 2003 was held in September instead of November because the Republicans that were pushing the tort “reform” amendment on that year’s ballot didn’t want it to take place at the same time as a high-turnout city of Houston Mayoral election – with special elections and runoffs occurring in December, February and April. Go see the SOS Election Results page and look at all of the elections that took place between the 2002 general and the 2004 primaries. The 2005 Lege cut all this back to the May/November with March primaries calendar we know now; at the time people fretted about how long it could take to fill legislative vacancies and stuffing too many elections onto the May and November ballots. The point I’m making is that we adjusted to that change, and we’ll eventually adjust to this one. It’ll be more painful (and expensive) some places than others, but we’ll figure it out.

Primary date will not be moved

A bill that would have moved the primary elections in Texas to April was amended at the last minute to move up the filing deadline instead.

After a testy exchange, House lawmakers gave initial approval to a voting bill that would push up the election filing period in order to give military voters more time to get absentee ballots.

The outcome wasn’t what Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, wanted. The original bill carried by the military veteran, along with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would have moved Texas’ primary from March to April, and moved runoffs from May to June. It was an effort to bring Texas in line with a federal rule granting overseas citizens at least 45 days to cast absentee ballots.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, amended Taylor’s bill to keep the primary date the same — the first Tuesday in March — but push the filing period from January into December in order to meet the terms of the federal MOVE Act. He said moving Texas’ already late primary date back would make the state a non-player in the presidential campaign season. And it would also bleed into spring break, complicating voting for many.

See here and here for some background. Runoffs will now be the fourth Tuesday in May, meaning they could be the day after Memorial Day. Some municipalities had previously expressed concerns about late April primaries conflicting with May city elections; I don’t know if this fully addresses that or not, and I don’t know how many places have May elections in even-numbered years, though I suspect they’re a much smaller group than the group that has them in odd-numbered years. I’m not thrilled about having the filing deadline be that much earlier – the election season seems to start early enough already, don’t you think? – but moving election dates around is tricky business, too. I’m not sure what would be best, but the Lege had to do something to comply with the federal statute. Trail Blazers has more.

Bill to move back primary date advances in House

From the DMN:

A Texas House committee on Friday unanimously passed a military voting bill that, among other things, would push the state’s political primaries into April from March.

The legislation also would move primary runoffs into June and might compel many cities to move their local elections from May to some other date. A Senate version of the same bill would keep the primary in March.

The intent of Senate Bill 100, sponsored by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is to make it easier for military and other citizens abroad to vote. The bill would match up Texas law with new federal rules allowing citizens overseas at least 45 days to cast absentee ballots.

While the requirements only apply to federal elections, the 45-day requirement will force big changes to the state’s election calendar.

The bill passed Friday by the House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs committee would move the state’s 2012 primary from March 6 to the first Tuesday in April. Runoffs would move from April to June.

Here’s SB100, and here’s some background. SB100 has already passed the Senate, so House approval is all it needs. There’s some concern about the effect this might have on May elections – voting in April, May, and June is a lot – but I suppose that can be fixed as well. Regardless, this looks likely to happen, so we’d better be prepared for it.

Moving the primaries back

In the 2007 legislative session, there was some energy to move the primary date up in Texas, on the theory that an earlier primary would finally enable Texas voters to have a say in the Presidential process, which was usually decided by the time our turn rolled around. That ultimately went nowhere, and it turned out to be for the best. Now the primary calendar may get pushed back a few weeks to accommodate a 2009 federal law aimed at making it easier for overseas military personnel to vote.

Texas must comply with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act requiring states to provide ballots to military personnel at least 45 days before an election. Making it easier for military personnel to vote will require Texas to change primary and runoff elections dates – resulting in longer campaigns for candidates and the public.

The early March primary election date will change – most likely to later in March or April. The runoff election – now six weeks after the primary – could move to May or late June or, possibly, even to July.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, are working to develop a bipartisan plan, which may not be so simple considering the Legislature includes as many election experts as there are members – 181. And most have an opinion. The major political parties also will have to sign off since they run the primary elections.

Sen. Van de Putte’s bill is SB100, and Rep. Taylor’s bill is HB111. The two are not the same, and so far it’s unclear that there’s a single approach preferred by a majority of either chamber. Among other things, having runoffs in June might present logistical issues, since many voting locations are schools, which would not be open at that time.

There’s another issue in all this that’s nagging at me as well:

Linda Green, installation voting assistance officer at Fort Sam Houston, said deployed troops have had problems voting by mail because ballots didn’t reach the personnel on time, or don’t get returned soon enough to be counted. But she said the Defense Department does an excellent job of providing resources to help with voting, including the assignment of a voting assistance officer to each unit – typically a captain or major.

I have to ask: Why aren’t we thinking about designing a system for these voters that doesn’t rely on slow mail delivery? Specifically, isn’t it time someone designed a system where they could vote over the Internet? Everyone in the military already has a unique ID. All they’ll need is an account and a password, and they’re good to go. The system can be designed to prevent anyone from voting more than once – hell, you could make it so that only a designated set of computers at a given location are authorized for voting, which must be done in the presence of the voting assistance officer. Obviously, this isn’t a problem that can be solved at a local or state level, so adjusting the elections calendar is the best the Lege can do, but still. This has got to be the right answer.