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Census apportionment numbers are in

Texas will gain two seats in Congress, which is one fewer than had been expected based on population growth estimates.

Texas will continue to see its political clout grow as it gains two additional congressional seats — the most of any state in the nation — following the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Monday.

Thanks to its fast-growing population — largely due to an increase in residents of color, particularly Hispanics — the state’s share of votes in the U.S. House of Representatives will increase to 38 for the next decade. The new counts reflect a decade of population growth since the last census, which determines how many congressional seats are assigned to each state. Texas is one of six states gaining representation after the census. The other five states are each gaining one seat.

The 2020 census puts the state’s population at 29,145,505 — up from 25.1 million in 2010 — after gaining the most residents of any state in the last decade. More detailed data, which lawmakers need to redraw legislative and congressional districts to reflect that growth, isn’t expected until early fall. But census estimates have shown it’s been driven by people of color.

Through 2019, Hispanics had accounted for more than half of the state’s population growth since 2010, a gain of more than 2 million residents. And although it makes up a small share of the total population, estimates showed the state’s Asian population has grown the fastest since 2010. Estimates have also shown the state’s growth has been concentrated in diverse urban centers and suburban communities.

With its gain of two seats, the state’s footprint in the Electoral College will grow to 40 votes. But Texas will remain in second place behind California for the largest congressional delegation and share of Electoral College votes. California is losing a congressional seat but will remain on top with 52 seats and 54 votes in the Electoral College. The other states losing seats are Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Florida, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will each gain one seat.

[…]

Texas ultimately fell short of the three congressional seats it was projected to gain based on population estimates. Census Bureau officials on Monday indicated the state’s 2020 population count was slightly lower — a difference of about 1% — than the estimates.

In the lead-up to the census, Republican Texas lawmakers shot down any significant funding for state efforts to avoid an undercount in the 2020 census, leaving the work of chasing an accurate count to local governments, nonprofits and even churches. Texas is home to a large share of residents — Hispanics, people who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were at the highest risk of being missed in the count.

I’ve been blogging about this for a long time, so go search the archives for the background. We’ll never know if some effort from the state government might have yielded a higher population count, but other states with large Latino populations like Florida and Arizona did not get the apportionment gains they were expected to, while New York only lost one seat and Minnesota didn’t lose any. California grew by over two million people over the past decade, by the way, but its share of the total population slipped, and that cost it a seat. Yes, I know, it’s crazy that the US House has the same number of members it has had since 1912, when each member of Congress represented about 30,000 people (it’s about 760,000 people now), but here we are.

The Chron goes into some more detail.

“We’ll have to wait for more granular data, but it certainly looks like the Texas Legislature’s decision not to budget money to encourage census participation combined with the Trump administration efforts to add a citizenship question cost Texas a congressional district,” noted Michael Li, an expert on redistricting who serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Census Bureau officials said Monday they were confident in the results, noting the state’s actual population was within 1 percent of the estimates.

The new population figures come as lawmakers in Texas prepare to redraw political boundaries, including for the state’s congressional delegation, which will remain the second-biggest in the nation as it adds two more members, for a total of 38. That trails California, which is set to lose a seat for the first time in state history, and will have 52 members.

Republicans will control the redistricting process and are expected to use it to reinforce their control of the delegation.

[Mark] Jones at Rice University said the party now just has to decide how safe or risky it wants to be with the new seats. Republicans can play it safer by tossing the new districts to Democrats while shoring up GOP votes in the 22 seats they hold now, which would keep them in control of the delegation. Or they could use the new seats to break up Democrat districts and try to gain ground.

[…]

Li expects the two additional seats to bring “demands for increased representation of communities of color, which will be at odds with the party that will control redistricting.”

Li said chances are high that the maps Texas Republicans draw will end up in court for that exact reason, something that has happened each of the last five decades.

“That’s almost a certainty,” Li said. “Every decade, Texas’s maps get changed a little or a lot because it’s never managed to fairly treat communities of color.”

Of course, we have a very hostile Supreme Court now, and no Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It would be very, very nice if the Senate could find a way to pass the two big voting rights bills that have been passed by the House, but until that happens we’re looking at a lot of sub-optimal scenarios. I’ve been saying what Prof. Jones says here, that the approach the Republicans take will depend to a large degree on their level of risk aversion, but never underestimate their desire to find advantage. There will be much more to say as we go on, but this will get us started. Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and the Texas Signal have more.

And the PAC12 flip flops, too

Everyone’s playing football again.

The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season beginning Nov. 6, the league announced Thursday.

The decision, voted on by the Pac-12’s CEO group on Thursday, represents an official reversal after the conference announced in early August it would postpone all sports until at least Jan. 1, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been the result of what we said back in August — that we’d follow the science, follow the data, follow the advice from our medical experts,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, “and that we know how badly our student-athletes want to compete, as student-athletes for the Pac-12, but that we would only do so when we felt that we could do so safely.”

In a release, the Pac-12 said men’s and women’s basketball can begin Nov. 25 while other winter sports can begin in line with their respective NCAA seasons. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball, will continue to plan for a spring season.

[…]

In August, the Pac-12’s CEO group, which includes a president or chancellor from each university, voted unanimously to postpone the season. The explanation for the postponement included the need for daily rapid turnaround tests for COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a belief that would be possible during the fall.

However, that changed less than a month later when the conference reached an agreement with a company to provide daily tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are expected to be operational in early October.

Along with daily antigen testing, athletes will take at least one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test per week.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Pac-12 CEO group chair and Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. “Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety.”

The conference faced additional pressure after the ACC, Big 12 and SEC remained set on playing in the fall. There was a common belief in the Pac-12, sources said, that after the Big Ten postponed its season, the other Power 5 conferences would eventually do the same. When that didn’t happen and the Big Ten faced significant pressure to change course, and eventually did, the Pac-12 was left to find a way not to be the only Power 5 conference idle in the fall.

After the Big Ten’s announcement last week, Scott quickly pointed to governmental restrictions in California and Oregon that prevented the six Pac-12 schools in those states from practicing. By the end of the day, governors from both states publicly indicated that nothing at the state level would prevent the Pac-12 season from taking place.

See here for the background, and here for the PAC 12’s statement. No one will be allowed at on campus games until at least January. It does indeed seem inevitable that once the Big Ten came back, the PAC 12 would follow. Now even some non-Power Five conferences are also returning, as the Mountain West Conference made a similar announcement. Just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’ll end up playing all the games they intend to play – just ask the University of Houston, which has had four games against four different opponents get cancelled for COVID reasons. And if you think all this is weird and perhaps ill-advised, just wait till basketball starts.

UPDATE: And the MAC is back, too, meaning that all FBS conferences will be playing some form of a football schedule this fall.

Postal service update

Just a reminder, destroying the US Postal Service has real effects on real people.

Delays in mail sorting and processing are leaving Houston-area businesses, brides and voters wary of the coming months. Whether it’s essential medication, ballots or important letters and business items, the USPS is relied upon to deliver in a timely manner. Yet, many Houstonians are already feeling the effects of the slowdown, including month-long wait times and undelivered mail.

Melissa Palacios Gonzalez, a U.S. Navy veteran, runs an accessories and clothing shop out of her home in Spring. When customers place online orders of jewelry or sunglasses, shimmery metallic sandals or distressed baseball caps from Aesthetic Glam, Palacios Gonzalez drops them off at the U.S. post office nearby.

But over the summer, she and other Houstonians noticed shipping delays as first the coronavirus strained delivery times, then systemic cutbacks by the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, reduced the USPS’s delivery capacity.

A USPS Priority Mail order of flip flops, which was supposed to be delivered in one or two days, took a week to reach its destination, Palacios Gonzalez said.

“If it becomes a routine problem —” she started to explain, then stopped and sighed. “Even if I say, ‘Oh, sorry that happened, here’s a percentage savings on me,’ I’m still potentially losing money and a customer.”

[…]

Due to delays in the U.S. Postal Service, Adrienne Lynch’s baby’s clothes often come weeks late.

The East Sunset Heights resident said her 20-month-old daughter is growing so fast, she often has to order new clothes. Care packages from the toddler’s grandmother also normally come much later than originally estimated by the post office.

Lynch’s mail service is in constant flux, she said. Some weeks, she notices deliveries every day. Other weeks, the household won’t receive mail for a few days.

Lynch first noticed the delays in March and April. They have continued and worsened since then, she said.

“Sometimes our outgoing mail may not be picked up for a day or so,” she said. “Or on the package tracking, you will see that your package is out for delivery, but it’s sent back to the post office at the end of the day because the carrier’s shift is over and they can’t do overtime.”

Uju Nwankwo, 27, sent about 100 to 130 wedding save-the-dates through the mail on July 19 for her February wedding. Almost a month later, many of her Houston friends have yet to receive the letters.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason, so I don’t really get it,” Nwankwo said of the sporadic deliveries.

When the soon-to-be bride contacted USPS, she said she was told her area was experiencing sorting delays. Now, with no way to track her letters, Nwankwo just has to wait it out.

Neither Nwankwo nor Lynch blame postal workers for the delays.

Carriers have a “really tough job” in worsening conditions, Lynch said. She’s started leaving bottles of water and thank you notes in the shade for postal workers to show her appreciation for their work.

“I think the delays we are experiencing locally are directly related to the system,” Lynch said. “Postal workers and their union want to serve the country, but their hands are tied.”

See here and here for some background. The potential consequences for some folks can be quite serious.

Operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service are causing delays in mail deliveries all over the country. A man in Humble said he had to go without his daily heart medication for a week due to the delays.

Don White, 82, said he has been tracking the package and said it remained at a north Houston mail processing facility for 10 days. He’s hoping to get in on Monday.

He said he’s irritated by the situation because his mail-order medication has never been this late before.

“There have been a few times in which it’s taken a week, week and a half, two weeks, but this is the first time I actually ran out and checking with the post office didn’t do much good, even though I had a tracking number on it,” White said.

He said in the meantime, his daughter has helped him get the medication at a local grocery store pharmacy.

Lucky for him he has someone nearby who can help him like that. Not everyone would be so fortunate.

There are lawsuits.

Let the Postal Service lawsuits begin. There are plenty of plaintiffs, including states. At least 20 state attorneys general are going to court over U.S. Postal Service delays and the threat to the November election, The Washington Post reports. “We’re trying to stop Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service, which we believe to be an attack on the integrity of election. It’s a straight-up attack on democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said in an interview. “This conduct is illegal. It’s unconstitutional. It’s harmful to the country. It’s harmful to individuals.

“We’re asking a court to make him stop,” he said. The ”we” in this case comprises Frosh’s fellow attorneys general from Washington State, the lead state in the case, as well as Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. This suit names Donald Trump and Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general, as defendants. It and another suit from Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, among others, will argue that DeJoy and the Postal Service broke the law by making operational changes to slow service without the approval of the Postal Regulatory Commission. They will also argue that these changes, which they are seeking to reverse, will impede the states’ ability to run free and fair elections. All of the attorneys general signing on to these cases are Democrats, of course. They have all the standing they need: The Constitution gives states and Congress the power to run and regulate elections. “States have the right to conduct mail-in elections if they choose,” Frosh said. “Trump is trying to undermine that.”

Not Texas, of course. Our Attorney General doesn’t object to this kind of lawbreaking. But at least one prominent Texan finds this all disgraceful.

Austin resident Carolyn Lewis, a George W. Bush-era presidential appointee and 2009 chair of the USPS board of governors, told The Texas Tribune in a series of email and phone interviews Monday and Tuesday that she has been disturbed by reports of sweeping cost-cutting measures that led to a slowdown in the mail and raised concerns that the postal service will not be able to handle an influx of mailed-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mr. DeJoy is failing to fulfill the mission of the USPS to provide prompt and reliable mail delivery at a time when that mission is as important as it has ever been,” said Lewis, who served on the USPS board of governors from 2004 to 2010, in a Monday email interview with the Tribune. “He is also destroying confidence in the organization that will only make its long-term viability even harder to achieve. If he does not change course immediately I hope the [board of governors] makes a change in leadership quickly.”

[…]

Lewis’ tenure also marked a moment of transition for the postal service. With the onset of modern technology, like email, the era marked a call for modernization in order to preserve the USPS’ mission to deliver the mail to all reaches of the country in a timely fashion while also remaining financially viable.

But DeJoy’s approach to modernization “feels different in several ways,” she said.

Alluding to a dysfunctional confirmation process within the U.S. Senate that for the last 10 years left gaping vacancies on the board, Lewis said that the postmaster general and the current board members “are very new and have none of the institutional knowledge that is usually there when you have more staggered terms of Governors.”

“Yet they seem to be rushing ahead to make changes before having time to fully understand the impact of those changes on all the stakeholders and there are many: employees, mailers, Congress and the American public,” she said.

She also has not seen “evidence that the current leadership has communicated their overall plan and goals that are driving the specific actions they are taking,” and “there is clearly not a priority on ensuring prompt and reliable mail delivery or fulfilling the mission” of the USPS.

“I do not know for certain the motivation of the [postmaster general] and the Governors, but their actions are certainly inviting questions, and legitimately so,” she added.

It took a couple of days, but this issue now has the full attention of Congress.

Houston Democratic congressional delegates on Tuesday announced they will propose legislation that would give the U.S. Postal Service an emergency loan and reverse recent cutbacks.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday afternoon that he would suspend all recent changes to the postal service until after the November election.

“Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” said DeJoy in a statement. “The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and Election Day.”

The postmaster general’s move did not satisfy Democratic lawmakers, who said legislation is needed to ensure the postal service can continue to operate at full capacity beyond November.

“What he’s proposing is not acceptable,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of DeJoy’s statement. “We need the changes to be reversed in totality forever. And that’s what the legislation is about.”

[…]

Previous legislation that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would have provided the loan. Trump said he would block the funding.

The coming bill, also supported by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher, would also make administrators within the postal service cease and desist from making any more cuts.

Jackson Lee said she will help oversee an investigation of the extent of recent reported actions directed by DeJoy, such as terminating mail sorting machines, reducing staffing and cutting back overtime at post offices across the country.

“We need to know whether there have been any civil rights violations or criminal acts taking place,” said Jackson Lee.

DeJoy will be testifying before Congress on Friday, and I hope it’s a painful experience for him. But clearly, simply agreeing to stop wrecking the place is insufficient. If I’m caught hauling bags of money from a bank vault, it is not sufficient for me to say “okay, fine, I won’t take any more money from the vault”. Vandals are expected to make restitution, and that should very much include Louis DeJoy. Daily Kos has more.

What does “reopening the economy” look like?

We’ll find out (sort of) later this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that reopening the Texas economy will be a “slow process” guided by public health concerns as he continued to preview a forthcoming executive order that will detail his strategy to reignite business in the state.

Abbott, who first hinted at his plans during a news conference Friday, said he’ll outline them later this week. Asked for more details Monday, he indicated his announcement will include a “comprehensive team” that he said will “evaluate what must be done for Texas to open back up, ensuring what we are doing is consistent with data, with medical analysis, as well as strategies about which type of businesses will be able to open up.”

“This is not gonna be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once” situation, Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin where he announced $50 million in loans to small businesses suffering under the pandemic.

Abbott also told reporters to expect an announcement this week on whether schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Abbott previously ordered them closed until May 4.

[…]

As he did Friday, Abbott said Monday that testing will be a part of his announcement later this week on reopening the economy.

“We will ensure that a component of that will include adequate testing,” Abbott said, adding that he just had a hourlong conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, about the testing necessary to “safely reopen the state for doing business.”

That last part is interesting, since so far the state of Texas has sucked at doing testing. Far more of it will be necessary to really open society up again, or else we’ll be right back where we started, with this giant unstoppable risk that we’re all vulnerable to. I’ll wait till there are more details before I go too far down the rabbit hole, but the first question on my mind is will this override whatever stay-at-home orders there are still in the counties? You may recall, Abbott was perfectly happy to let mayors and county judges lead the way when the hard decisions had to be made about shutting down. Will he still respect them later this week when he wants to start things up, or will that all be yesterday’s news? How will the Abbott plan compare with the reopening plans in other states? Stay tuned and find out.

Census lawsuit proceeds

Good.

A federal judge in New York on Thursday allowed a lawsuit challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the Census to move forward. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman’s decision rejected the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was brought by numerous states and localities.

The judge said that the court has jurisdiction to review Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to add the question, rejecting the administration’s arguments that Ross could be insulated from judicial review.

Furman said that while Ross indeed had the authority under the Constitution to add the question, the judge concluded that the exercise of that authority in this particular case may have violated the challengers’ constitutional rights.

At this stage of the proceedings, Furman is required to assume the challengers’ allegations are true, and he must draw any inference from those allegations in the challengers’ favor. In doing so on Thursday, Furman said that the challengers “plausibly allege that Secretary Ross’s decision to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 census was motivated by discriminatory animus and that its application will result in a discriminatory effect. ”

See here, here, and here for the background. Nothing really new here, just another chance for me to say that this absolutely was motivated by discrimination and that it would be very nice to have it halted by the time the counting actually begins. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

Census lawsuit may proceed

Good.

A federal judge said Tuesday that there was a “strong showing of bad faith” by the Trump administration in adding a controversial question about US citizenship to the 2020 census. The judge hinted that he would allow the case to move forward over objections from the administration, and senior administration officials will be subjected to questioning under oath about why the question was added.

Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said the administration “deviated from standard operating procedure” by adding the question with no testing. Furman ruled that the plaintiffs challenging the question—including the state of New York and the American Civil Liberties Union—can depose senior officials from the Commerce Department and Justice Department as the case moves forward.

The census has not asked respondents about their citizenship status since 1950. Civil rights groups say the citizenship question will depress response rates from immigrants, imperil the accuracy of the census, and shift political power to areas with fewer immigrants. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated, how much representation states receive, and how political districts are drawn.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved the citizenship question in March, saying it was needed for “more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act. Ross said at the time and in subsequent testimony before Congress that he approved the question after the Justice Department requested in December 2017 that it be added.

However, Ross stated in a memo he filed to the court on June 21 that he first considered adding a citizenship question to the census after he was confirmed as commerce secretary in February 2017, months before the Justice Department requested the question. He wrote that he had approached the Justice Department about the question, not the other way around, after consulting with “other senior Administration officials” who had “previously raised” the citizenship question.

Furman cited Ross’s memo to question his truthfulness and the administration’s motives in adding the question. “It now appears these statements were potentially untrue,” Furman said of Ross’ claims that the question was added at the Justice Department’s request. “It now appears that the idea of adding a citizenship question originated with Secretary Ross and not the Department of Justice.”

See here and here for some background. The judge did subsequently allow the lawsuit to go forward, while also granting the motion for discovery. I for one can’t wait to see what bits of treasure that digs up. Time is of the essence here, so I hope there’s a speedy schedule to get us towards a resolution.

Multiple cities and states sue over Census citizenship question

Good.

Seventeen states, the District of Columbia, and six major cities sued the Trump administration on Tuesday over the addition of a controversial new question about US citizenship to the 2020 census. This is the third major lawsuit against the administration’s action, after California and the NAACP sued last week, marking a major escalation of the legal and political battle over the census. Civil rights advocates say the question is designed to spark fear in immigrant respondents and will cause many immigrants not to be counted, diminishing the political power and financial resources of the jurisdictions where they live.

“This is a blatant effort to undermine the census and prevent the census from carrying out its Constitutional mandate,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who organized the multi-state lawsuit, at a press conference in lower Manhattan. New York has the third-largest immigrant population in the country, after California and Texas. More than 1 in 5 New York residents are foreign-born. “This is an effort to punish states like New York that welcome immigrants,” Schneiderman said.

The lawsuit says the new question “violates the constitutional mandate to conduct an ‘actual Enumeration’” of the country’s entire population, not just citizens, as well as a provision of the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act barring federal agencies from taking “arbitrary, capricious” actions.

The lawsuit was filed by New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia, and joined by the cities of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, San Francisco, and Seattle. The bipartisan US Conference of Mayors, which represents the 1,400 cities with a population of 30,000 or more, also joined the suit.

[…]

Past leaders of the Census Bureau and current advisers to the bureau have also blasted the question. Six former bureau directors, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in January that “an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.” Members of the bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee, who are appointed by the director, blasted the decision at a meeting of the Census Bureau last week.

“I want to say in no uncertain terms that I think this is an absolutely awful decision,” said D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University. “I am dumbfounded that this decision is coming in at such a late date. My view is that this is going to have severe negative implications for data quality and costs.”

She began her PowerPoint presentation at census headquarters with the phrase “W.T.H.,” short for “what the hell.”

The Commerce Department, which oversees the census, said the new question was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Barack Obama, told Mother Jones that was “plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately to sabotage the census.”

See here for some background. Even with the involvement of the US Conference of Mayors, I say every city of decent size should want to get involved, because it’s their residents who are going to be undercounted as a result of this malevolent policy, and that will cost them in terms of funding, representation, and more. This is a big, serious deal and it needs to be treated as such. Think Progress, which also looks at the effect of this policy on Texas, has more.

The case for letting everyone vote by mail

The Washington Monthly in an article written by a former Secretary of State for Oregon, lays it out.

vote-button

Presidential elections still attract a majority of America’s voters. For all other elections, however, democracy is mostly a spectator sport. In the 2014 midterms, just 83 million registered voters cast ballots—a nosedive of almost 10 million from 2010’s already anemic levels. Almost 110 million registered voters were no-shows—for a registered voter turnout rate of just 44 percent. Add another 40 million eligible but unregistered citizens, and the rate was just 36 percent.

Turnout in primary nomination contests is even lower—for instance, just 18 percent of registered voters participated in the 2012 cycle. This is a major factor pulling both parties, but especially the GOP, to the extremes, and it should be especially worrisome to Republican and Democratic moderates and the 42 percent of Americans who now identify as “none of the above.” An estimated 90 percent of the nation’s 435 congressional seats and 7,383 state legislative seats are noncompetitive between the major parties. Win the dominant party primary, and the November election is a mere formality.

Fiscal conservatives, too, have reason to worry about low voter turnout, if for no other reason than the costs that taxpayers in many states are incurring to ameliorate it, such as keeping polls open longer. Voting as traditionally done—with 110,000 polling stations and 800,000 poll workers—is expensive. Just to upgrade or replace the hundreds of thousands of aging touchscreen voting machines could easily cost states and localities $2 billion in the next decade.

Low voter turnout, however, should really trouble progressives, because the voters who don’t show up at the polls (including the ones who vote in presidential years but not in off years) are disproportionately Democratic in their orientation and propensity.

Democrats and their progressive allies aren’t bereft of ideas to boost voter participation. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both championing promising reforms, such as automatically registering all American citizens based on driver’s licenses or birth records. But no other solution holds anywhere near the potential to boost actual voter turnout. Evidence from Oregon, Colorado, and Washington suggests that if other states adopted universal vote by mail (UVBM), they could increase their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent. Even more dramatically, they could double or triple their primary election turnout, which would almost certainly reduce the inordinate influence of take-no-prisoners ideologues. (See “Can Vote by Mail Reduce Partisan Extremism?”)

Universal vote by mail has many other virtues, too. Those odious photo ID laws? Rendered moot; you don’t need a voter ID to fill out a ballot at your own kitchen table. Long polling place lines? How about no lines, period—and no way for elected officials to manufacture them by (whoops!) providing too few polling places in certain neighborhoods?

Universal vote by mail has also proven to be at least as secure from fraud—and arguably more so—as traditional voting at polls. Election officials check each voter’s signature on the ballot return envelope, matching it against the voter registration card before the ballot is counted. (Since signatures can change, voters still have time to update their registration cards—and qualify their ballots—before results are officially certified.)

Universal vote by mail has the additional advantage of being less costly to taxpayers than the traditional method. Beginning in 2000, Oregon taxpayers started saving $3 million per election cycle. Or consider California’s San Diego County, where election officials found that in a 2013 special election for mayor the direct cost of operating their polling places—$360,000, for 32 percent of votes cast—far exceeded that of the “mailed out” portion—$84,000, for 68 percent of votes cast.

[…]

Would expanding UVBM to other states help Democrats more than Republicans? The weight of the evidence certainly suggests so. But that Democratic advantage, such as it is, won’t necessarily last forever. Voter preferences change over time as generations age. A decade ago, for instance, older voters leaned Democratic, and as recently as the 1980s most younger voters supported the GOP.

Moreover, partisan advantage shouldn’t matter at all if UVBM will help democracy and give voters far more ability to cast an informed and considered ballot, on their schedules. How many of us, voting at a traditional polling place, have felt the pressure to rush through the process, picking candidates, especially down-ballot ones, almost at random? Voting by mail, at your kitchen or dining room table, is unhurried. You can use the Internet to learn more about candidates’ policy positions and views, or look for newspaper editorials. You can reach out to knowledgeable relatives, friends, and colleagues who might know more than you do about a particular race. The result is more considered and intelligent voting.

Universal vote by mail can also counter the outsized influence of extreme ideologues who thrive in the “micro-turnout” world of current party primary elections. Official voter statistics our PSU team has compiled from all fifty states’ primaries show that just 35 million voters cast primary ballots during the 2012 election cycle—while 155 million already-registered voters didn’t. That’s an overall registered voter turnout rate of 18 percent. Separate research involving complete voter files for fifteen 2014 primary states shows the median age of those voting at about sixty-two, compared to the median age of forty-six for registered voters in those states.

If 10 or 12 percent of registered voters in an average-turnout state choose to vote in the dominant party’s primary, the electoral math is pretty clear: win just 5 or 6 percent of your constituents’ votes in a competitive race, in the right primary, and you can pop the champagne corks. But when more than 50 percent of eligible Republicans and Democrats vote in primary elections—Oregon’s track record since 2000—each party’s more moderate voters have a far greater opportunity to be heard.

The main attraction for elected officials is that UVBM would save money. When you add in the fact that at some point every county in Texas is going to have to replace its increasingly old and outdated electronic voting machines, the case becomes clearer. Not that anyone expects this to happen in Texas, where the extremism is a feature and not a bug, but it’s worth pointing out and getting someone on board for filing a bill to this effect in 2017. Martin Longman has more.

Inmates and Medicaid

Other states are doing what Texas has declined to do.

go_to_jail

Being arrested in Chicago for, say, drug possession or assault gets you sent to the Cook County Jail to be fingerprinted, photographed and X-rayed. You’ll also get help applying for health insurance.

At least six states and counties from Maryland to Oregon’s Multnomah are getting inmates coverage under Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid, the federal and state health-care program for the poor. The fledgling movement would shift to the federal government some of the more than $6.5 billion in annual state costs for treating prisoners. Proponents say it also will make recidivism rarer, because inmates released with coverage are more likely to get treatment for mental illness, substance abuse and other conditions that can lead them to crime.

“When someone gets discharged from the jail and they don’t have insurance and they don’t have a plan, we can pretty much set our watch to when we’re going see them again,” said Ben Breit, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

The still-small programs could reach a vast population: At the end of 2012, almost 7 million people in the U.S. were on parole, probation, in prison or locked up in jail, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 13 million people are booked into county jails each year, according to the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

[…]

Medicaid expansion also enables more prisoners to have coverage when they are released. States that don’t expand it can help inmates get subsidized coverage in the insurance exchanges created under the law when they’re released.

Counties in about half the states are responsible for some level of indigent care at hospitals, so getting inmates enrolled can reduce costs, said Paul Beddoe, deputy legislative director for the National Association of Counties.

Cook County has been operating a pilot project to enroll prisoners in Medicaid since April under a federal waiver, while states including Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland and counties such as Multnomah, which includes Portland, have helped hundreds of prisoners apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act since it took effect Jan. 1. California, Ohio, San Francisco and other jurisdictions are starting programs or considering them.

About 90 percent of inmates are uninsured, and many have never had treatment for their illness, Osher said. They have disproportionate rates of communicable and chronic diseases and behavioral disorders, he said. About 488,000 people in U.S. prisons and jails suffer from a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Virginia.

[…]

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which plans to start enrolling inmates during the next two months, expects that it will save $18 million a year on hospitalization alone, said Stu Hudson, managing director of health care and fiscal operations.

Ex-prisoners who have insurance will be more likely to get treatment that would help them avoid committing crimes that got them locked up in the first place, Hudson said.

“They’re provided good continuum of care from incarceration through their release into the community and onward,” Hudson said by phone.

We’ve discussed this before. Putting aside the considerable cost savings to the state, the potential impact on the many people that regularly intersect with the criminal justice system who have treatable mental illnesses could be huge. We could save a bunch more money just from the reduced rate of recidivism. There’s really no downside to this. Unfortunately, without a change in state leadership, there’s also no chance of it happening. I don’t really care about the day to day vicissitudes of the Governor’s race. This sort of thing is the prize I keep my eyes on.

Wash hands or wear gloves?

There’s an interesting debate going on in Oregon about the best way to ensure food safety in restaurants and other eateries.

Oregon restaurant owners and chefs recently earned a small victory, delaying by several months a new state rule that could make dining out more expensive, create waste and, despite its good intentions, do little to protect public health.

The rule, initially set to take effect [last] Sunday, would require cooks to wear gloves or otherwise avoid touching food with their bare hands. But restaurant owners argued the requirement won’t prove safer than the state’s current rigorous hand-washing practices — and the science seems to back them up.

“The idea that using rubber gloves is going to stop people from getting sick is ludicrous,” said Andy Ricker, chef and owner of Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York. His New York locations already comply with that state’s no bare-hand-contact rule.

“For it to be safe, every time you touch something, you’d have to take your gloves off, wash your hands, and put on new gloves.” Ricker said.

At least a half-dozen recent studies have concluded the same: Counterintuitively, wearing gloves does little to prevent the spread of bacteria compared with effective hand washing.

Wearing gloves has been found to reduce the number of times people wash their hands, while warm, moist conditions create a hothouse for bacteria to grow. A 2005 report from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center that analyzed grilled tortillas found more staph, coliform and other harmful bacteria on the samples prepared by workers wearing gloves.

“Gloves lead to a bulletproof-vest feeling,” said Bryan Steelman, owner of the Mexican eatery Por Que No? and among the restaurateurs leading the charge against the new rule. “Cooks think, ‘I have a glove on. I don’t need to wash my hands.'”

“Effective” hand-washing being the key, of course. I have to admit, this isn’t something I’d thought much about, but it’s a big deal. The annual cost of food poisoning is $77 billion, with one in six Americans affected, and 3,000 deaths. It’s also largely preventable, and doing a better job of it would no doubt help keep health care costs under control. There’s more to it than hand-washing or glove-wearing, of course, but this is the low-hanging fruit. As the story notes, both methods are effective as long as they are implemented properly. Anyway, I thought this was worth highlighting. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

Burgerville

We’ve seen a bunch of well-regarded and highly-anticipated national burger chains enter Houston recently – Five Guys, In ‘n’ Out, The Counter – but the one I’d love to see hit our shores is Burgerville.

As the 39-restaurant chain looks back on its first half-century in business, President and CEO Jeff Harvey is working to position Burgerville for its next 50 years.

The company’s focus on fresh, local food and social consciousness has helped it win a dedicated following. But restaurant experts warn the Vancouver-based company faces stiff competition this year from national burger-sellers moving into the Pacific Northwest.

“Some of the big boys are coming, and they’re coming in fast,” said Bill Hayden, a Portland-based restaurant adviser and owner of Northwest Consultants.

Burgerville’s success has grown from a willingness to experiment across the company and at different locations.

It tries out seasonal menu items throughout the year, and in 2009 it considered going upscale and experimented with the possibility by adding beer and wine to the menu at its Salmon Creek restaurant.

After each experiment, Burgerville’s leaders look at the results and decide how next to act.

Though alcohol options remain on tap in Salmon Creek, the company has not added beer and wine to the menu at other sites. Patrons haven’t asked for it, Harvey said.

“Our goal is to satisfy the wants and needs of our guests,” he said.

The evolution has led Burgerville officials to tie parent company The Holland’s “serve with love” mission to a sustainable philosophy, Harvey said. He, along with other key employees, have strengthened the company’s ties to food suppliers and buyers that recycle Burgerville’s used cooking oil into biodiesel. The company composts food wastes and offers a health insurance plan for all employees.

Every facility is powered by 100 percent wind energy purchase, Harvey said.

“There are ways we can run our business that help create a sustainable future for our community, rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

The food’s pretty good, too. They also have free WiFi and print nutrition information on your receipt. Burgerville is one of the places we like to patronize when we make our annual visit to my parents in Portland. I don’t know that a little regional chain like this is likely to ever expand our way, but I suppose all the other outfits that are busy going national started out small, so I figure there’s always hope. Regardless, I wish them the best for their next 50 years and beyond.

Geothermal energy

Interesting read about the town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, where they take advantage of an unusual feature to keep things warm.

A combination of hot rocks and water like those that created Yellowstone’s geysers have been tapped by the city to keep the sidewalks toasty since the early 1990s. They also heat downtown buildings, kettles at a brewhouse, and greenhouses and keep the lights on at a college campus.

Geothermal wells in this town of 20,000 mark one of the nation’s most ambitious uses of a green energy resource with a tiny carbon footprint, and could serve as a model for a still-fledgling industry that is gaining steam with $338 million in stimulus funds and more than 100 projects nationwide.

“We didn’t know it was green. It just made sense,” said City Manager Jeff Ball.

While it’s probably just as well that we don’t have self-heating sidewalks here in Houston, geothermal energy is a mostly untapped source of green energy, one that is now getting a more serious look.

Until now, geothermal energy has been limited by having to find the three essentials ingredients occurring together in one place naturally: hot rock relatively close to the surface, water, and cracks in the rock that serve as a reservoir.

Those limitations go away if engineers can tame a technology known as EGS, for Enhanced Geothermal Systems.

A 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report estimates that EGS, with support, could be producing 100 gigawatts of electricity — equivalent to 1,000 coal-fired or nuclear power plants — by 2050, and has the potential to generate a large fraction of the nation’s energy needs for centuries to come.

“If we are going to try to achieve a transformational change in this country, geothermal should be part of that recipe,” said Jefferson Tester, chairman of the committee that produced the report and professor of sustainable energy at Cornell University. “It’s not treated that way. It’s typically forgotten.”

You can see that study here. The HMNS blog, from which I got that link, has some discussion of it. We do have at least one geothermal lease in Texas, or we did as of three years ago. I don’t know where that stands today, and the General Land Office website lacks a search function, so I can’t say for sure. Anyway, the stimulus bill steered some money into geothermal projects, so keep an eye on this. Every little bit of non-carbon energy helps.