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Fifth Circuit rejects age discrimination claims in vote by mail lawsuit

This is pretty much the end of the line, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Texas can keep its strict eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Siding with the state’s Republican leadership, the appellate judges rejected the Texas Democratic Party’s effort to expand eligibility for voting by mail to all registered voters based on their argument that the state’s age restrictions for such voting violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting rules that discriminate based on age.

The panel of appellate judges ultimately found that “conferring a privilege” to some voters — in this case the option of voting by mail to voters 65 and older — does not alone violate the 26th Amendment.

“In sum, the plaintiffs based their Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim on the argument that differential treatment in allowing voters aged 65 and older to vote by mail without excuse constitutes, at least during the pandemic, a denial or abridgment of a younger citizen’s right to vote on account of age,” the panel wrote. “This claim fails because adding a benefit to another class of voters does not deny or abridge the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote.”

The federal panel vacated a lower court’s sweeping ruling that found Texas voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail were in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. On Thursday, state Democrats indicated they would push forward with their challenge at the lower court, where the appellate court sent the case for further consideration of the party’s remaining arguments against the state’s restrictions.

[…]

“Rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments, we hold that an election law abridges a person’s right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced,” the judges wrote.

The panel was made up by Judges Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; Carl Stewart, who was appointed by Bill Clinton; and Leslie H. Southwick, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

Dissenting in part to the majority opinion, Stewart wrote that the state’s eligibility rules fail to “treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting.”

“This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic,” Stewart wrote. “Though all individuals can seemingly vote in person, those without the opportunity to vote by mail have less opportunity to participate than others.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Michael Hurta has a good brief analysis of it. As to what happens next, Rick Hasen thinks the original trial judge will find for the plaintiffs again, which will trigger another appeal. As such, this isn’t really the end of the line as I’ve suggested above, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be a ruling that favors the plaintiffs any time before the November election. Whatever ultimately happens with this will not happen until at least 2021. I don’t care for this ruling, and this was about as friendly a three-judge panel as we were gonna get. It’s hard for me to see how the outcome changes.

Which means, as I have been saying over and over again, the ultimate fix rests within the legislative process. Just add this to the ever-increasing list of things that a Democratic Legislature, in conjunction with a Democratic Governor, will need to fix. The Republicans have made their position crystal clear. There’s no bipartisan solution. The only way out is through, and that means electing a better government. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit hears arguments on vote by mail case

One more try before it’s too late to make a difference for this year.

The Texas Democratic Party’s lawyer argued today before a federal appeals court that the state is unlawfully discriminating against the majority of the voting-age population by requiring only those under the age of 65 to have an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot.

It’s one of several last-minute battles playing out in the months leading up to the 2020 election, which is expected to yield historic turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

[…]

The Democrats’ federal case is expected to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the clock is ticking. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Texas is October 23, leaving just about seven weeks for the appellate court and high court to rule on it.

At Monday’s hearing, Chad Dunn, representing the Texas Democratic Party, told the court that the Texas mail-in voting law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote can’t be “denied or abridged” on account of age.

Dunn said previous elections have shown that voters will likely be waiting in long lines in November.

“We’re asking voters — certain ones of them get excused from that endurance test and others, based purely on their age, are to suffer through it,” Dunn said. “The fact of the matter is that when individuals’ characteristics are used by the government to divvy up who gets to vote, those are prohibited” by the Constitution.

The state, represented by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, argued that Supreme Court precedent exists to show that the Texas law does not violate the 26th Amendment.

“It does not deny or abridge the right to vote to make voting more available to some groups as opposed to others,” Hawkins said. “To abridge the right to vote does not mean giving other groups more options; it means taking away something from a certain group.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, the other vote by mail-related lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss. We should get a ruling of some kind in this lawsuit before the deadline to mail out overseas ballots, which is September 18. I have no idea if there’s time for any action on the other one.

This Statesman story from earlier in the day on Monday has some more background info on the case.

Monday’s arguments will focus on the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, saying the right to vote cannot be denied or restricted “by any State on account of age” for those 18 and older.

Just as other constitutional amendments ensure that voters cannot be treated differently based on race or gender, the 26th Amendment uses identical language to extend voting protections based on age, said Chad Dunn, who will argue Monday on behalf of Democrats before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am confident that we will ultimately ensure that everybody, regardless of age, has the right to vote by mail,” Dunn told the American-Statesman.

[…]

The age question has drawn the interest of at least one influential observer: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

When Texas Democrats raised the issue at the high court this summer, the nine justices declined to accept the case. Sotomayor was the only one to discuss the reason.

The Democrats’ challenge, she wrote in late June, “raised weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment.”

However, justices balked at addressing those questions for the first time at the high court, and Sotomayor urged the 5th Circuit Court to make a speedy decision in the matter.

Many others hope for a quick resolution as well. In Texas, voting for the November election begins in less than seven weeks.

[…]

The case before the 5th Circuit Court will determine the fate of a May order by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who required mail-in ballots to be sent to any registered Texas voter who requested one while “pandemic circumstances” continue.

“One’s right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature. Citizens should have the option to choose voting by letter carrier versus voting with disease carriers,” Biery wrote.

Paxton appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court responded by blocking enforcement of Biery’s order until the appeal can be decided.

That ruling by a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit was notable for its harsh criticism of Biery for wading into election decisions that belong to “politically accountable officials,” not judges.

“The spread of the virus has not given unelected federal judges a roving commission to rewrite state election codes,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

A different three-judge panel, however, will hear Monday’s oral arguments and decide whether the 26th Amendment bars Texas from denying mail-in voting to those under age 65. Two of the judges on the new panel were appointed by Democratic presidents — Carolyn Dineen King and Carl Stewart — while the panel’s third member, Leslie Southwick, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

A ruling won’t come Monday, but with the election looming, the appeals court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule.

The Texas Democratic Party’s challenge has drawn considerable interest, with additional legal briefs filed by liberal and conservative public interest groups, health professionals, advocates for the disabled, other states and local political parties.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir also submitted a brief with election officials from Harris, Cameron and Fort Bend counties that begged the 5th Circuit Court to accept the 26th Amendment arguments and expand mail-in voting.

“Unless access to vote by mail is increased significantly, providing a safe election will be impossible because of the expected high volume of in-person voters this presidential year,” their brief said.

On the one hand, almost 30 doctors and nurses, including epidemiologists and front-line health workers, told the court that it is essential to reduce the number of people gathering on Election Day to protect voters, poll workers and the community from COVID-19, while the Texas NAACP argued that the state’s Republican leaders adopted a needlessly restrictive interpretation of mail-in voting law to impose a severe and unacceptable burden on the right to vote.

On the other hand, a brief from conservative legal interest groups argued that Biery improperly interfered with the state’s authority to regulate the time, place and manner of elections in favor of widespread mail-in voting, which should be allowed in only limited circumstances because it is more vulnerable to fraud than traditional voting.

Originally, there were two lawsuits, one filed by the TDP that argued COVID vulnerability was sufficient to be considered a “disability” and allow anyone who claimed that to get a mail ballot, and one filed by other groups that argued the existing limit of vote by mail to those 65 and over (plus those who claim a disability, which as we know was not clearly defined and is being argued about in other venues) violates the 26th Amendment, which is the one that lowered the voting age to 18. Both were combined into this lawsuit, and as you can see the 26th Amendment claim is the main thrust from the plaintiffs. We’ll see what we get.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Age discrimination lawsuit filed over vote by mail

This is something new.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren’s interest in boosting Texas Dems

I heartily approve of this.

Elizabeth Warren

As Elizabeth Warren climbs the polls — threatening Joe Biden’s lead in the Democratic primary — her campaign is turning its attention to Texas, a state she called home for a decade and a place her campaign has deemed the “future of our party.”

Warren announced this week she’s soon to dispatch staff to Texas, and her campaign manager says her commitment to the state includes pouring money into down-ballot races here, part of a broader national strategy to help candidates in other races.

“We’re targeting our resources to invest in places that will be critical to keeping the House, taking back the U.S. Senate, and regaining ground in key state legislatures in 2020,” Roger Lau, Warren’s campaign manager, wrote in a strategy memo this week. And he vowed that the campaign is “continuing to build the future of our party by investing in states like Texas.”

The memo comes as Warren rises in the polls, surpassing Biden to take the front-runner spot in several, including a Quinnipiac University poll released this week that showed Warren with a lead of 2 percentage points over the former vice president.

It’s also the latest example of national Democrats paying serious attention to a state they long saw as a Republican stronghold beyond their reach. The party picked Houston to host a presidential debate earlier this month. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has opened an office with senior staff in Austin and has operatives working in the half-dozen GOP-held congressional districts they’re targeting for the 2020 election. And the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a Washington entity headed by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, has said it plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in hopes of seizing the nine seats that Democrats need to take back the Texas House.

Warren’s campaign manager summed up the effort: “If we want to make big, structural change, we need to make sure Democrats control the U.S. House and Senate and win important gubernatorial and state legislative races across the country.”

That was from a couple of weeks ago; I forgot I had it in my drafts. We don’t know what the shape of this effort will be, but so far Team Warren is saying all the things I’d want a Democratic frontrunner to say. She has already endorsed in the CD28 primary, which is either bold or meddling, depending on one’s perspective. This is a different type and level of commitment, and it won’t be clear what it means till some time next year. I’ve said before that putting real resources in Texas is a must-have for me in a Presidential candidate. This is a good example of what I’m talking about. Well done.

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

Holder talks gerrymandering

The former AG was in town as part of his national activism on the topic.

Texas is “ground zero” in a national effort launching Saturday to ensure that every American’s vote counts in upcoming elections, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Houston this week.

Holder, who led the Justice Department from 2009 to 2015 under President Barack Obama, is leading a project called “All on the Line,” ahead of the 2020 Census, focusing on a fight against gerrymandering expected with the redistricting process the following year.

[…]

The meeting in Houston was a small gathering that allowed for a dynamic conversation between Holder and leaders of organizations that helped to turn out voters in the midterm elections last year. Representatives of the Texas Organizing Project, the Texas Civil Rights Project, MOVE Texas, Texas Freedom Network, Houston in Action, and Battleground Texas were among those present.

Jolt, a youth organization that organized the Houston gathering, will launch “a major campaign with two different approaches,” said Amanda Rocha, the organization’s leader in Houston. One will be an online initiative focused on the importance of being counted in the Census, while the other will be “a door to door canvasing helping people understand what’s a stake and addressing their concerns,” she said.

Holder said it can be difficult to engage people on issues like redistricting and gerrmandering, which might sound “kind of wonky, kind of ethereal.”

“Well, if you care about a woman’s right to choose, if you care about voter suppression, if you care about criminal justice reform, if you care about climate, if you care about health care, the expansion of Medicaid, all of these things are determined at the state level and by these gerrymandered state legislators,” Holder said.

Gerrymandering is a tactic used by state legislators to draw the lines of electoral districts in a way that provides their party an unfair advantage.

Holder said a redistricting process should reflect the composition of the people in the areas drawn fairly, informed by the census results. But parties sometimes draw strangely shaped lines to guarantee dominance in their district, based, for example, on its racial composition as a predictor of voting patterns.

“We are trying to break up this whole gerrymandering. We want to make sure that, come 2021, we have a fair process,’ said Holder.

The purpose of the campaign is “not gerrymandering for Democrats, I want to make that very clear,” he said. “If we make this a fair fight between conservative Republicans, Democrats, progressives, Democrats and progressives will do just fine.”

What this comes down to is a goal for Democrats, in Texas and elsewhere, for 2020. We saw what happened following the 2010 elections when Republicans took control of state legislatures across the country, and drew districts for themselves that ensured their continued control even in closely divided states. The 2020 election is just as important, for the same reason. If you don’t have any control over the redistricting process, then redistricting is done to you, and there’s no reason to believe the federal courts as they now stand will do anything about it. The one thing Democrats in Texas can do is win control of the House. That’s a tall order, as it will take winning 20 seats, but there are lots of targets and Presidential year turnout should help.

I’ve talked several times about how Republicans are going to have some tough decisions to make about redistricting in 2021, given the results of the 2018 election and the likelihood of a similar election in 2020. Protecting their incumbents will be a challenge, especially given the assumption that will need to be made about the basic partisan composition of the state. All this presumes it will be Republicans making those decisions. Give Democrats a majority in the House and the calculus changes completely. That may be the only realistic path to a non-partisan redistricting commission going forward. The point of this activism by Eric Holder, and the main thing people should take away from these meetings, is that this is a primary goal for 2020, because it will set the stage for the decade to follow. If you need a reason to get ready to work as hard in 2020 as you did in 2018, this is it.

Two possible straws in the wind

Ken Paxton seems a little nervous.

Best mugshot ever

Less than 36 hours before Election Day, the race for attorney general is showing signs of competition that have been absent in just about every other statewide contest.

Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, who was indicted more than three years ago on felony securities fraud charges, has been running a relatively quiet campaign with the comfortable advantage of a GOP incumbent in a state that has not elected a Democrat statewide in more than two decades.

But now he is firing back at his Democratic challenger, Justin Nelson, with a new attack ad — the first one from Paxton that addresses the indictment — and getting a fresh influx of high-dollar campaign donations, signals that Republicans are not taking anything for granted in the race for Texas’ top lawyer.

Nelson, a prominent Austin attorney, has made Paxton’s legal troubles the basis of his campaign and the main focus of much of his advertising — posting billboards around the state featuring Paxton’s mugshot, commissioning a rolling billboard he calls the “Mugshot Mobile” and even sending campaign staffers dressed as Paxton in prisoner garb to frolic on the Capitol grounds in a Halloween stunt. Yet most consequentially, Nelson has spent significantly to air TV ads informing voters all over the state that their attorney general is under indictment.

The anti-Nelson push from Paxton’s campaign suggests that the Democrat’s jabs have been successful in getting something most other Democratic statewide candidates have been aching for: the GOP’s attention. Except for the blockbuster U.S. Senate battle between incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, Republican statewide officials have largely ignored their Democratic challengers, let alone gone negative on TV against them.

“Nelson has successfully raised the profile of the race to a level where Republicans began to be nervous that people who vote straight-ticket Republican may cross over in this race as they learn more about Ken Paxton,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “While they’re still counting on it, they don’t have 100 percent confidence.”

Paxton also got a cash injection from Greg Abbott. As I said before, this may just be an abundance of caution on Paxton’s part. The official reason, asserted by the political scientists, is that Paxton doesn’t want to win by a wimpy single-digit score. And maybe that is all it is. But I feel pretty confident saying he wouldn’t be asking for handouts from Greg Abbott if he didn’t think he needed the help.

Meanwhile, there’s Democratic money coming in, too.

A Democratic super PAC focused on state legislative races has injected $2.2 million into a slew of Texas House contests in their closing days.

The group, Forward Majority, is using the money to help 32 Democratic candidates, many of them challengers in GOP-held districts who have not been able to match the financial backing of the incumbents. A large majority of the funds are going toward digital ads targeting the Republicans as beholden to big donors and corporate interests, with a couple of spots tailored to specific lawmakers.

“We are staging this late intervention because we believe there is a unique window of opportunity for first time candidates to take down several entrenched Republican incumbents on Tuesday,” said Ben Wexler-Waite, a spokesman for Forward Majority.

[…]

Forward Majority was launched last year by alumni of Barack Obama’s campaigns with the goal of retaking state legislatures across the country before the next round of redistricting in 2021. Texas is one of six states the group is targeting this cycle as part of a nearly $9 million push.

In Texas, Forward Majority began seriously spending in its targeted races just a couple weeks ago. Its latest filing with the Texas Ethics Commission, which covered Sept. 28 through Oct. 27, shows the group spent $1.1 million. The rest of the $2.2 million has come since then, Wexler-Waite said.

Forward Majority is not the only seven-figure force for Democrats in Texas House races this cycle. The House Democratic Campaign Committee has raised $1.1 million this cycle, fueled by six-figure donations from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The HDCC is currently waging an $800,000 digital ad campaign in the most competitive seats.

The list of races in which this PAC is spending money follows. It ranges from the ones that have been the focus of attention all along, to those that should have had more attention all along, to the stretch goals and the more speculative investments. I couldn’t tell you the last time we did something like this – pretty sure it wasn’t this redistricting cycle – so I’m just happy to see it happen. We’ll see how sound an investment this turns out to be.

A little effort for redistricting reform

It’s a start.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, is making a quarter-million-dollar investment in Texas to help Democrats here flip a number of state House seats in November.

The money represents one of the largest single contributions that the House Democratic Campaign Committee has ever received, according to its chair, El Paso state Rep. César Blanco, who said the investment “puts us in a stronger position to pick up more seats in the House.”

House Democrats, who currently control 55 out of the 150 seats in the lower chamber, are heading toward November targeting the 11 GOP-held districts — most of them traditionally Republican — that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, with an emphasis on the Dallas area. They are also looking at several Republican-controlled districts across the state where Clinton came close to winning.

Blanco said the value of growing the Democratic caucus by even just five members could increase its influence in the race to replace outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A larger caucus could also have implications for inter-chamber relations next year.

Here’s what the NRDC has to say about Texas. $250K is not nothing, and it’s always nice to see national Democratic money flow into Texas instead of the other way around, but it’s not that much in the context of a dozen or so races. Honestly, it might be put to better use on the lower-profile and second-tier races, or in districts where there’s also a competitive Senate or Congressional race going on that’s already doing GOTV. Like I said, it’s a start and I’ll gladly take what they have to give, but let’s maintain some perspective. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what the Republicans’ moneybag overlords can and will spend.

Abbott’s anti-anti-redistricting task force

Alternate title: Dude with deep pockets gives Greg Abbott a wad of cash to stop those evil Democrats.

As Gov. Greg Abbott sounds the alarm about Democratic efforts to influence the post-2020 redistricting process, he is being backed up by a new super PAC led by a key ally.

The super PAC, #ProjectRedTX, has quietly raised a half a million dollars — from a single donor — as it looks to ensure Republican dominance in Texas through the next round of redistricting. Those efforts are ramping up as the state prepares to defend its current congressional and state House district maps before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group is being helmed by Wayne Hamilton, Abbott’s 2014 campaign manager, according to a person familiar with the effort. Hamilton, a former longtime executive director of the Texas GOP, has been involved in politics for the past three redistricting cycles.

“Our Mission is to create and support effective efforts to secure Republican representation in redistricting across the state,” the super PAC says on its website. “This mission includes making expenditures to support candidates. Additionally, we will provide support for redistricting effort with expert demographers, statisticians and legal counsel.”

[…]

The super PAC was formed in April of last year but did not show any activity until more recently. At the end of January, it reported collecting two donations — $200,000 in November and $300,000 in December — from a single person: Michael Porter, a retiree from the tiny Hill Country town of Doss.

See here for the background. This dude has written a big check to Greg Abbott before, and I’m sure he’ll do it again the next time Abbott sends him a scary email. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee in Texas

Let’s say I’m hope but verify on this one.

Former President Barack Obama and members of his administration are ready to take another shot at chipping away at Republican domination in Texas.

A new group headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder and with the public backing of Obama is targeting Texas among 11 states in which they are determined to change the redistricting process to assure more competitive state House and Senate races in the future.

“In 2011, Republicans created gerrymandered districts that locked themselves into power and shut out voters from the electoral process,” Holder said in announcing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s electoral targets earlier this week.

“By focusing on these state and local races, we can ensure Democrats who will fight for fairness have a seat at the table when new maps are drawn in 2021,” he added.

And Harris County will be a big part of the plan. State Democrats have already highlighted more than 20 seats in the Texas House that Hillary Clinton either won over Donald Trump in 2016 or lost narrowly — a list the new NDRC group is well versed in, said Kelly Ward, executive director of the group.

Ward said her group hasn’t made specific targets yet, but said after the primaries in March they will begin to hone in on more specific targets.

[…]

[Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party’s Deputy Executive Director] said state Democrats welcome the attention from national groups. He said the recognition from group’s like Holder’s only offers further vindication of the progress Texas Democrats are making.

In 2011, the Texas House had 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. Since then, Democrats have gained 6 seats and have hopes for more in 2018. In the Senate, though Republicans have a 9 seat edge, Garcia said picking up just two seats would have a big impact on how the Senate operates.

Currently Democrats have few procedural tools to slow down the Republican agenda in Austin. But with two additional seats, Democrats would have enough votes to force Republicans to have to listen to them.

It all sounds good, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard from a big-name group of former Obama staffers with big ideas and the promise of major resources, so I trust you’ll forgive me if I refrain from swooning just yet. They’re saying the right things, and the fact that Senate races are in the discussion is a positive, but we’ll know it when we see it if this is a real and serious thing.

On a broader note, I think a promise of a better and less-partisan redistricting process would have some appeal to less-partisan voters. Since the ouster of Sen. Jeff Wentworth, it’s Democrats who have taken up the thankless task of filing a bill for a non-partisan redistricting committee. Such a bill is highly unlikely to go anywhere without a Democratic majority, and of course once there is a Democratic majority the urge to use the process for our own benefit will be strong. Maybe things would be different this time, and who knows, if you get enough people to campaign and win on a fair-and-less-partisan redistricting process they may actually act on it once elected. It’s worth a shot.