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MOVE Texas Civic Fund

Turner signs cite-and-release order

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday signed an executive order authorizing a new cite-and-release program for the Houston Police Department, aiming to let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of a trip to jail.

Turner and Chief Art Acevedo also promised to release monthly public updates on its implementation, ensuring the public can review how the policy is applied. The order takes effect 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“The program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibility for their actions without having the stain of an arrest, or serving jail time, on their record,” Turner said of accused offenders.

[…]

The policy has buy-in from HPD executives, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and some advocates, who have called it an imperfect step in the right direction.

However, the city’s policy allows for exceptions that some argue are too expansive. The exceptions include if an alleged offender cannot provide a government ID, if there is reason to believe they will not appear in court, and if “an officer believes that offering Cite And Release to an otherwise qualified suspect is not the best course of action.”

In those cases, the officer must get supervisor approval and document the name of that supervisor in his or her offense report.

Those exceptions have given pause to criminal justice advocates who have pushed for a cite-and-release policy for years.

The Right2Justice Coalition, a group that includes many prominent local justice organizations and drafted a model cite-and-release ordinance this summer, wrote an open letter to the mayor last week asking him to strengthen the new policy.

It said the policy, as laid out by HPD, leaves officers with too much discretion and carves out too many exceptions. It is not legally binding and does not include all citation-eligible offenses under state law, the letter said.

Houston’s policy has 16 exceptions, whereas San Marcos has six and Austin has seven, according to the letter.

“We project that their program, as presented, will fail to significantly improve community safety, wellbeing and equity in the city,” the letter said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The detailed reporting is good, as that will let everyone know how this is working. Even better would be a commitment to make changes when the data shows there are opportunities for improvement. I can understand why the activists are still critical, but we’ll see how this goes. We are expecting the task force report in the next couple of days, so we will be continuing this discussion further, and maybe make some more progress as well.

Voter registration during a pandemic is hard

Especially when online voter registration is not an option.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In the first seven months of 2020, new registrations in Texas were down nearly 24% compared with that same time frame in 2016, according to numbers from the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. In April alone, registrations dropped 70%. Numbers have climbed back up over the summer, but that rebound might not be enough to get the state back to where it could have been, said David Becker, the center’s director.

“We’re not seeing an increase in voter registration activity that compensates for the decrease that we’ve seen in previous months,” he said. “In Texas, there’s still a pretty big overall deficit for the year in terms of new voter registration activity.”

The effects are being felt by both parties. Democrats and Republicans told The Texas Tribune that they’re struggling with voter registration in the era of COVID-19.

On the Republican side, the super PAC Engage Texas is emblematic of the challenge. By February, a month before the pandemic hit Texas, it had raised nearly $12 million and had hired nearly 300 staff members with the goal of registering hundreds of thousands of new likely Republican voters before the 2020 elections. The political action committee had shut down by May, citing challenges created by the coronavirus.

“It’s more difficult to register voters face to face and by traditional voter registration methods like door-knocking during the pandemic,” said Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Texas who said the party was not allowed to coordinate with Engage Texas.

However, Twombly said, the party has found “multiple alternative methods that have proven to be very successful at registering voters during the pandemic.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have long contended that Texas isn’t a red state, but a nonvoting state — one they could flip if they registered and energized more voters. Party leaders entered the 2020 cycle determined to register large amounts of young people and people of color who are opposed to the Trump administration. Groups like Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People were gearing up for a massive blitz, only to find they can’t go door to door. Now many are hosting virtual phone banks with the hopes of registering hundreds of thousands of voters.

Voting rights groups are experiencing similar challenges. Since its founding in 2012, Mi Familia Vota’s Texas chapter registered over 50,000 new voters, a number the group thought would have gone up in 2020. But the group is anticipating seeing a 20% decrease in its final voter registration numbers since 2018, said Angelica Razo, the Texas state director for the group.

Many of the potential missed registrants, Razo said, are in the state’s growing Latino population, which has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and lower-income residents who don’t own printers and are therefore unable to print off voter registration forms.

“Latinos have been disenfranchised, and there has not been a lot of investment in Latino electoral participation,” Razo said. “But the energy is there, and people are fired up. Our people don’t want to get stuck on the sidelines for this election. Mi Familia Vota is working to create systems and resources hubs that make this process as accessible as possible.”

Lately, there have been some signs of a possible, albeit small, rebound. Groups like the League of Women Voters of Texas and MOVE say they saw registration bumps over the summer; both groups attributed the change, at least in part, to Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Roughly 16,500 people registered to vote with MOVE between June and August, Bonner said; Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, also reported gains since the spring, though she was unable to provide exact figures.

[…]

Still, many groups are working to reach potential voters online. Chimene pointed to Register2Vote.org, a website that has been accessible to people since March 2018, which walks people through filling out the voter registration application online and then sends it to them in the mail filled out with the person’s information and a stamped return envelope.

Jeremy Smith, the executive director of Register2Vote, said it registered 23,700 Texans from March to May and another 37,500 from June to July. Some experts say they think the latest online tools will likely have the biggest impact on college students and people younger than 25.

The Texas Democratic Party is doing something similar. In April, it launched registertexas.org, which also sends voters pre-filled voter cards with return envelopes. It also formed a “voter expansion team” in January with the goal of “expanding the electorate,” said Luke Warford, the director of voter expansion. On Sept. 7, the party said it reached out to 1.3 million unregistered Texans in the week prior, though it’s unclear how many followed through and registered.

I find it interesting that while the one Republican-backed group that was trying to register voters gave up in May, while all of the Democratic and non-partisan groups have chugged along and found innovative solutions like the pre-filled-in applications that just need to be signed and stuffed in the mail. You tell me what that means about the relative levels of dedication. I said before that it was useful to have a Republican-backed group bump up against the reality of voter registration in Texas, as maybe that might give a little push to the eventual passage of a bill to allow online voter registration, which the earlier judge’s ruling cracked a door open for. But let’s be real, as with every other worthwhile election reform, the main prerequisite is going to be a Democratic trifecta in our state government.

Meanwhile, in other election innovations:

Utilizing its platform, Snapchat, the popular social media app, is registering new voters ahead of the election on Nov. 3. As of this report, the app has registered 407,024 people, according to data reported within the app. A spokesperson confirmed with Axios that the tally seen in the app’s “Register to Vote” portal represents the number of users who registered to vote via the app.

Snapchat is commonly used by millennials and Gen Z, including a wide number of people who recently turned 18 years old and who will have the ability to vote for the first time this year. To guide individuals through the ballot process and help ease the process of registering to vote, Snap–the company that owns the app–has partnered with Democracy Works’ TurboVote. To streamline the process of the registering feature, Voter Registration “Mini” allows users to register within the app itself instead of visiting registration sites. The tool became available last week and has already registered nearly as many voters as the app did in 2018 with the same feature.

For the 2018 midterm elections, Snap registered at least 450,000 new voters. Most of those who registered were between the ages of 18 to 24 years old and did so in key states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, a company spokesperson said. According to the company, 57% of users who registered to vote with Snapchat went out and cast ballots, Axios reported. In addition to the voter registration tool, Snapchat is promoting a voter guide that allows users to search for terms associated with voting and the election, as well as guide them on how the process of voting works. To ensure users are prepared for Election Day, the app’s tool, called BallotReady, walks users through how to vote-by-mail and cast a ballot, with COVID-19 precautions in mind.

Give people the chance to use new technology in ways not originally envisioned, and they will. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case it certainly is. It’s up to us to ensure this kind of innovation is widely available.

A win for those with lousy signatures

Some good news on the voting litigation front.

As Texas prepares for an expected deluge of mail-in votes in November, a federal judge has found that one facet of the state’s signature verification rules for those ballots is unconstitutional and must be reworked for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Tuesday that the state’s process for determining whether there is a mismatch between a voter’s signature on their ballot envelope and the signature the voter used on their application to vote by mail “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”

In his order, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to inform local election officials within 10 days that it is unconstitutional to reject a ballot based on a “perceived signature mismatch” without first notifying the voter about the mismatch and giving the voter a “meaningful opportunity” to correct the issue.

Additionally, to “protect voters’ rights” in the upcoming election, Garcia said the Texas secretary of state must either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature comparison process, or notify them that they are required to set up a rejection notification system that would allow voters to challenge a rejection.

[…]

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that the law is applied unequally, with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

To correct course ahead of the November general election, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to either halt all rejections based on a “perceived signature mismatch” or implement an “immediate remedial plan” that requires local election officials to notify a voter within one day of determining a perceived mismatch and allow the voter to challenge the rejection.

Under that plan, voters must be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch determination by the local review board. Those who provided phone numbers on their applications must be called at least once within one day of the decision.

See here for the background, and observe how adorably optimistic I was that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue since both parties use voting by mail. What can I say, it was 2019, you had to be there. I don’t have much to say now that I didn’t say then – this ruling makes total sense, the “standard” that was used was arbitrary and needlessly harsh, and it really is in everyone’s interests to make an effort to count these ballots. I assume Ken Paxton will appeal this because that’s what he does, but until then let’s be happy we got what we got. The Chron has more.

More on mail ballots

Here’s a second story from the Trib on the attempted destruction of the Postal Service in the name of vote suppression by Donald Trump.

“I think the goal of Donald Trump’s comments are to destabilize faith in voting systems and we’ll be telling them the truth that voting by mail is safe and secure,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “We’ll counteract fear with facts.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said eligible voters in the state’s most populous county who are worried about delays in the mail will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at any of the county’s 11 offices “beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM.”

“Preserving every eligible citizen’s right to vote is a pillar of our democracy,” he said in a statement. “My office is doing everything in our power to withstand the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic and uphold this essential right for eligible voters. But it is shameful that partisan politics has led to the destruction of the United States Postal Office – an institution we need dearly right now.”

Hollins stressed that “despite this latest form of voter suppression, voting by mail remains the safest method for Texans to vote this November.”

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said it is working to send out 1.7 million vote-by-mail applications to eligible Texans — the largest number in the party’s history. The party has already sent out 900,000 and is sending out the other 815,000 this week, he said.

“We believe strongly that Texans should be able to vote safely and securely during the time of the pandemic,” Rahman said. “Vote by mail is good for democracy, good for our state and good for our country.”

Regarding the president’s recent comments, Rahman said the party will continue to utilize its voter protection team, in addition to a website designed to help register all voters in the state.

“I think that Texans will crawl over broken glass to vote Donald Trump out of office and be vigilant to make sure their vote is counted,” he said.

[…]

The changes at the Postal Service have raised concerns that the process will be slowed down. In the name of cutting costs, the agency has reportedly reduced overtime for workers, banned extra trips used to make sure mail is delivered on-time and is decommissioning 10% of its mail sorting machines. According to The Washington Post, sorting capacity in Houston alone has dropped by 470,000 pieces of mail per hour. Those changes will have an effect on businesses that depend on the mail and people who use it to receive their paychecks or prescriptions, among many other things. But they also have the potential to make it harder for people to get their ballots in before the deadline.

Voter mobilization groups say they will encourage voters to send their ballots in as early as possible to avoid any risk of the delays affecting their vote.

“Our goal as a state should be to have the greatest possible number of Texans vote and for them all to be equally heard at the ballot box,” Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, which works to engage young voters, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “This means expanding on popular and secure reforms like mail-in ballots.”

Galloway also said the group’s organizers “received countless calls” before the primary runoff elections in July with questions about late absentee ballots — many of which, he said, were not received or arrived too late.

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

Republicans in Texas have largely remained quiet on the issue.

See here for the background. Of course Republican leaders have been silent on this, they are all far too cowardly to ever say a word in opposition to their Dear Leader. Democrats have been much more vocal, and while this story has totally blown up and caused some of the worst excesses to halt, there really needs to be a bigger, broader, and louder response from Democrats, especially Congressional Democrats. I mean, they do have some power here, and they need to exercise it.

Now is a good time to call your member of Congress, especially your Democratic member of Congress, and ask them to demand hearings ASAP, with subpoenas and the threat of being hauled in front of Congress by Capitol police if those subpoenas are not obeyed. No more playing nice here, this is as serious as it gets.

At the CEC meeting yesterday, County Clerk Chris Hollins spoke after the other business was done, and he talked about what his office is doing to ensure people can vote despite all of this garbage. I’ve already noted that people can drop off completed mail ballots at any of the 11 County Clerk offices. Hollins reported there will be 120 (!) early voting locations, which should make the in-person experience as safe as possible. (Yes, they need election workers. The gig pays $17 an hour. Go apply if you can.) There were other questions asked of Hollins, including one I posted about early voting locations as mail ballot dropoffs. He didn’t get to the questions, but promised there would be an easily visible FAQ section on the Harris Votes webpage shortly, which would include responses to the questions we asked, so check there in a few days. Trump’s destruction is obscene and anti-American, but it’s also an obstacle that can be overcome. We’re going to be able to handle it here in Harris County, and other urban counties appear to be in decent shape as well. If you’re not sure about your county, pester your officials as needed to get them on the ball. Like I said, this is as serious as it gets.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

It’s a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A state district judge on Wednesday said he will move forward with an order easing restrictions for voting by mail in Texas in light of the new coronavirus pandemic.

After conducting a video conference hearing in a lawsuit filed by state Democrats and civic organizations, Judge Tim Sulak told the attorneys he will issue a temporary injunction allowing all voters fearful of contracting coronavirus if they vote in person to ask for a mail-in ballot under a portion of the Texas election code allowing absentee ballots for voters who cite a disability. His ruling, which is almost certain to be appealed by the state, could greatly expand the number of voters casting ballots by mail in the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

[…]

During the hearing, those plaintiffs offered up two expert witnesses — a local doctor and an epidemiologist — who testified to the risks for transmitting the virus that would come with in-person voting. Meanwhile, the risks tied to mail ballots are “negligible,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The Texas attorney general’s office, which intervened in the case, argued against the expansion, claiming the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a “sickness or physical condition” and not those who fear contracting a disease “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”

Just as the hearing was wrapping up, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton made public an “informal letter of advice” that further teed up what is expected to be a drawn out court battle over expanding voting by mail ahead of the runoffs and the November election.

Paxton stated that an individual’s sole fear of contracting the virus was not enough to meet the definition of disability to qualify for a mail ballot, and that those who advise voters to apply for a mail ballot based on that fear could be criminally prosecuted.

See here and here for the background; there is also a federal lawsuit over the same issues, for which I don’t know the status. The Chron adds some more detail.

State law currently allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result,” Paxton wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature … The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.”

The state’s elections director earlier this month issued guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties pointing to the election code’s disability clause, which voting rights advocates had claimed as a victory.

Attorneys for the Democratic Party argued in court on Wednesday that the disability clause “plainly provided for circumstances such as this when public health makes it dangerous to vote in person.”

But they said the courts need to make that clear as county officials are currently wrestling with how to conduct the upcoming runoff elections in July, when voters will pick a Democrat to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

“This is a total muddled mess,” said Glen Maxey, the Texas Democratic Party’s primary director, who administers elections in dozens of counties, as he testified about the guidance during a court hearing on Wednesday. “We’re going to have a mishmash of who can vote and who cannot vote by mail in this election.”

But Anna Mackin, an assistant attorney general, argued that the law clearly does not cover those afraid of COVID-19 and urged state District Judge Tim Sulak “not to allow this global crisis to be manipulated as a basis for rewriting a provision of the election code.”

Yes, Paxton’s “letter” does indeed seem to fly in the face of that SOS advisory. Is that a lack of communication between branches, or a real difference of opinion? Hard to say. Bear in mind, there’s nothing in state law that allows the Governor to order the cessation of abortions in the state. AG Ken Paxton interpreted the Abbott emergency order that initiated a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services to include abortion providers, which the exigent circumstances allowed. Here, however, he’s arguing that these same exigent circumstances do not allow for an interpretation of the state’s absentee ballot law that includes voting by mail for people who claim under that law that they are unable to vote in person. It’s not that these interpretations are indefensible, but the two of them together sure suggest a strictly partisan motive. (Add in the ruling that gun shops do count as “essential” for some extra zest.)

In a vacuum, I think people of good faith could reasonably differ on the interpretation of our vaguely-worded state law, and one could make a principled argument that it’s the role of the Legislature to make such a significant change in how it should be read and enforced. But Ken Paxton is not making a good faith argument, he’s simply doing what he always does, advancing his partisan interests over anything else. He certainly may win, in both venues. Let’s just be clear about what he’s doing. The TDP (a plaintiff in the case), the ACLU of Texas (an intervenor), and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

The dispute—which asks whether all Texans should be able to vote by mail because of social distancing restrictions and the risk of contracting the coronavirus—was headed to a higher court. Acknowledging that, Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd District Court ruled from the bench that he would grant a temporary injunction, and reject jurisdictional arguments by the state of Texas.
The judge will issue a written order once it’s prepared.

Sulak said that if voters didn’t get clarity on whether the Texas vote-by-mail law applied to them, they might face a choice of having to vote in person, and accept the risk of getting sick. Or they could try to apply for a mail-in ballot. However, if the government later found their mail-in ballot inappropriate, voters could face prosecution, or find that their ballot was not counted, the judge said.

Also, if Sulak didn’t grant relief, he said there was a risk of future conflicts involving candidates filing election contests to challenge the voting results.

“Some of that could lead to the unstable, unsettled, uncertain situation about: Who are our elected representatives,” Sulak said. “Especially now that we are in this disaster scenario, where we don’t have courts running as efficiently as they have previously, it could result in some very serious governance issues, very serious jurisprudential issues.”

[…]

The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction, and eventually a permanent injunction, that would require the defendants to accept and tabulate mail-in ballots from voters who are practicing social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, the state of Texas, which intervened as a defendant, argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. The state claimed that a voter wouldn’t qualify to vote by mail just from having a fear of contracting the coronavirus. Also, the claim wasn’t ripe, since no one knows if the contagion will still be present in July, when the primary runoff elections are scheduled.

However, during a hearing Wednesday on the application for a temporary restraining order, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who testified for the plaintiffs said that it’s highly likely that the coronavirus will continue to spread in Texas through the summer.

“Once social distancing guidelines are relaxed, in my expert opinion, it’s inevitable we will see a rise in cases,” said Cathy Troisi, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Voters going to the polls will be at risk of infection because they’ll come into close contact with other people, and they’ll touch voting machines that many voters have touched, Troisi explained. Election workers would be at a higher risk, because they stay at polling locations all day and have contact with many more people, she added.

When asked if voting by mail carries a risk of infection, Troisi replied, ”Voting by mail does not, so yes, voting by mail would protect the public health and public safety of Texans.”

Sulak rejected the state’s jurisdictional arguments, which also included claims that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the vote-by-mail law was significantly expanding the statute the Texas Legislature wrote.

“I respect the separation of powers. We’ve got a choice here between arguments from that perspective and arguments from something that has seminal, fundamental, individual constitutional rights: that is, free people making full choices and having full access to have choices about their government,” Sulak said.

The judge asked plaintiffs’ counsel to draft an temporary restraining order, and to submit a proposed order denying the state’s plea to the jurisdiction.

And now we wait for the appeal, and for a hearing in the federal case.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

From Ian Millhiser at Vox, who is decidedly more pessimistic about the plaintiffs’ chances. He starts by noting how restrictive Texas’ existing vote-by-mail law is.

The law only allows Texas voters to obtain an absentee ballot under a very limited list of circumstances. Voters may obtain an absentee ballot if they plan to be absent from their home county on Election Day, if they have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from voting in person, if they are over the age of 65, or if they are jailed.

It is far from clear that a healthy person who remains at home to avoid contracting coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot.

Texas Democratic Party v. Hughs, a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party, seeks to fix this law — or, at least, to interpret the law in a way that will ensure healthy people can still vote. But the lawsuit potentially faces an uphill battle in a state court system dominated by conservative judges.

All nine members of the state Supreme Court are Republicans, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion seeking to intervene in the lawsuit — a sign that he intends to resist efforts to prevent this law from disenfranchising voters.

The stakes in this case are astoundingly high. As Texas Democrats note in their complaint, voters are “now heavily discouraged” from even leaving their homes “by various government orders and are being discouraged in an enormous public education campaign.”

Even if the pandemic were to end by July 14, when the state plans to hold several runoff elections, “certain populations will feel the need and/or be required to continue social distancing.” Millions of voters could potentially be forced to choose between losing their right to vote and risking contracting a deadly disease.

[…]

Whether these Texans can get an absentee ballot could end up depending on how the courts interpret the phrase “physical condition.”

On the one hand, the law explicitly labels this provision as an accommodation for people who have a “disability.” The words “physical condition” also appear in conjunction with the word “sickness,” which implies that those words should be interpreted to refer to some sort of disabling condition that only a subset of Texans possess. Often, when a law uses a general term in the context of other, more specific terms, courts will assume that the general term should be given a narrow reading — one similar to the specific terms.

On the other hand, the literal meaning of the words “physical condition” is much more expansive. As a team of civil rights lawyers, including several from the ACLU, argue in a motion suggesting that the state law should be read expansively, “everyone has a physical condition” that prevents them from appearing at their polling place during a pandemic — the physical condition of being susceptible to coronavirus.

Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate. One judge might argue that the words “physical condition” should be read expansively, because that is the ordinary meaning of those words. Another might argue that they must be read in context with words like “sickness.”

The problem facing the Texas Democratic Party is that, when a fair judge acting in good faith could legitimately read a law in two different ways, it is very easy for a partisan judge to choose the interpretation they prefer. And every one of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court is a Republican.

Because older voters tend to prefer the GOP, the Texas Republican Party has a clear interest in preserving a legal regime that allows voters over 65 to obtain an absentee ballot but makes it much harder for younger voters to do so.

That said, if Democrats lose this particular lawsuit, that does not necessarily mean millions of Texans will lose their right to vote. It’s possible a federal court could rescue Texas voters in a separate lawsuit — one that most likely has not even been filed yet — holding that the unique burden the coronavirus pandemic imposes on voters renders Texas’s strict absentee ballot law unconstitutional.

This was written before the TDP filed its federal lawsuit, so bear that in mind as you read. I appreciate the analysis, which is the first in-depth look at the crux of the issue that I’ve seen. It’s a little crazy that it all hangs on the interpretation of two words, but here we are. I agree that in normal times one could reasonably interpret this either way, but if there’s ever a time for a bit of leeway, this is it. It’s not terribly surprising to me that the AG’s office has petitioned to intervene in the case – this is standard procedure for when the state gets sued, though the SOS does have its own attorneys. I’m more keen to know what if anything Greg Abbott thinks – if there’s going to be some influence on the court, it’ll come from him. There are definitely plenty of Republican elected officials who are in denial about the situation, and that could lead to pressure on Abbott to take a line-in-the-sand stance. Hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or it won’t.

It’s also possible that the delayed July 14 primary runoffs will go off without any problems and in-person voting is fine, thus leading to a sense of complacency for November. Or maybe things will still be bad, or at least bad in the more-Republican rural areas, and that might make some people more aware of the fact that everyone has something to lose if we don’t plan better. That recent SOS advisory leaves me with some hope for a settlement in the existing litigation. The real tell will be if and when the usual agitators on the right start whipping up a frenzy. Remember also that the Republicans are busy trying to register voters this year – they have a stake in getting whatever new voters they sign up to the polls, too. Like I said, I have hope for a settlement, but it’s too early to tell which way the wind will blow.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

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.

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.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.