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July 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 2

Let’s move on to finance reports from the State House, which I will break up into two parts. Today’s look is on the various races in the greater Houston area, and after that I’ll look at the other races of interest from around the state. Part One of my look at the July reports for state races is here. January reports for Harris County State House races are here, January reports for other area State House races are here.

Martin Shupp, HD03
Cecil Bell, HD03

Lorena McGill, HD15
Steve Toth, HD15

Jeff Antonelli, HD23
Mayes Middleton, HD23

Brian Rogers, HD24
Greg Bonnen, HD24

Patrick Henry, HD25
Cody Vasut, HD25

Sarah DeMerchant, HD26
Matt Morgan, HD26

Eliz Markowitz, HD28
Gary Gates, HD28

Travis Boldt, HD29
Ed Thompson, HD29

Joe Cardenas, HD85
Phil Stephenson, HD85

Natali Hurtado, HD126
Sam Harless, HD126

Kayla Alix, HD129
Dennis Paul, HD129

Gina Calanni, HD132
Mike Schofield, HD132

Sandra Moore, HD133
Jim Murphy, HD133

Ann Johnson, HD134
Sarah Davis, HD134

Jon Rosenthal, HD135
Justin Ray, HD135

Akilah Bacy, HD138
Lacey Hull, HD138


Dist   Candidate       Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD03   Shupp              430         0          0         430
HD03   Bell             8,750    24,449     82,140      19,327

HD15   McGill          11,010    12,791          0       3,437
HD15   Toth            32,849    22,015          0      20,413

HD23   Antonelli        2,104         0          0       2,104
HD23   Middleton        9,782   271,170    500,000      87,325

HD24   Rogers             970         0          0       1,445
HD24   Bonnen          16,120    35,375    450,000     563,721

HD25   Henry            3,660     5,113          0       3,660
HD25   Vasut           48,486    68,549        100      28,176

HD26   DeMerchant      12,998     5,138        975       6,178
HD26   Morgan          25,702    44,030     29,615       3,998

HD28   Markowitz      287,618   243,837          0      48,119
HD28   Gates          497,620   632,891  1,736,100      58,549

HD29   Boldt           16,531     7,228          0      15,682
HD29   Thompson        59,521    72,807          0     412,652

HD85   Cardenas         9,298     4,542          0       1,800
HD85   Stephenson      20,243    40,447     29,791      34,720

HD126  Hurtado        121,203    30,604          0      66,783
HD126  Harless         28,914     2,965     20,000     124,052

HD129  Alix            33,836     3,868          0         898
HD129  Paul            38,885    17,665    156,000      46,752

HD132  Calanni         92,315    33,941          0      99,500
HD132  Schofield       63,290   134,658          0      53,016

HD133  Moore            4,025     2,352          0       3,862
HD133  Murphy          60,100    27,894          0     514,779

HD134  Johnson        267,651   110,996          0     193,642
HD134  Davis          133,245    98,848          0     169,966

HD135  Rosenthal      129,685    61,548          0      87,108
HD135  Ray             64,170    53,847          0      60,774

HD138  Bacy            76,135    38,924          0      48,944
HD138  Hull            25,638    49,438          0      20,518

The first thing to keep in mind is that the time period covered by these reports varies. Candidates who did not have a primary opponent did not have to file eight-day reports for March, so those lucky folks’ reports cover the entire six months from January 1 through June 30. Those who had a March primary and emerged victorious did have to file an eight-day report for March, so their reports cover February 23 through June 30. And those who had to endure the runoff election also had to file an eight-day report for that race as well, so their reports cover February 23 through July 6. Got it? Check the individual report links themselves if you’re not sure what applied for a given candidate.

For obvious reasons, candidates who had contested primaries and/or runoffs may have raised and spent more than someone who could have cruised through that period. Looking at these numbers, it’s not actually all that obvious who was running in a real race during this period and who wasn’t, but that was a factor. Also, remember that the runoff for the special election in HD28 was in January, so much of the fundraising and spending for Eliz Markowitz and Gary Gates includes that.

So with all that, a few things to note. Ed Thompson (HD29) and Jim Murphy (HD133) have clearly followed the well-trod path of multiple-term incumbents, building up a decent campaign treasury for the year when it may be needed. Remember how I once suggested that Jim Murphy could make sense as a candidate for Houston Mayor in 2023? The strategy of building up a campaign war chest while a member of the Legislature worked pretty well for Mayor Turner. I’m just saying. First term Democratic incumbents Jon Rosenthal and Gina Calanni, neither of whom were big fundraisers in their successful 2018 campaigns, have done all right for themselves so far. They’re not going to scare anyone off with their bank accounts, but they’re not starting from scratch, either.

Nobody in the hot races in HD26 or HD138 has a lot of money right now, but I don’t expect that to last. I figure the 30-day reports will tell more of the story there, and of course there will be a ton of PAC money at play. Eliz Markowitz will have a larger network of donors from her special election to tap into, but will be operating in a much more competitive environment, and as before will be running against a guy who prints his own money. Natali Hurtado has some catching up to do in HD126, but she’s off to a roaring start. No one in the lower-profile races has done anything to raise their profiles.

By the way, when you see a puzzling disparity between raised/spent and cash on hand, the answer is almost always because the amount raised includes a significant “in kind” share. Kayla Alix in HD129, for example, raised $33K, but $26K of it was an in-kind donation for office rental. It’s a real contribution, but it doesn’t manifest as cash on hand.

The two oddest reports to me are those belonging to Sarah Davis and Mayes Middleton. What in the world was Middleton, a first-term incumbent with no primary opponent, spending $271K on? About $78K on advertising, and at least that much on six or seven paid staff, in monthly installments. Why does he have so many people on monthly retainers? You’d have to ask him. As for Davis, I have no idea how it is that she doesn’t have $500K or so in the bank. She’s been an incumbent for as long as Murphy has (they both were elected in 2010; Murphy had served a term before that and was defeated in 2008 but came back the following cycle), her last serious Democratic challenger was in 2012 (Ann Johnson again), and like Murphy she represents a wealthy district with plenty of well-heeled constituents. I recognize that this is a tough cycle for her, by most reckoning one in which she is likely to lose, so I can understand how Johnson is outperforming her now. What I don’t understand is why she didn’t have more socked away for exactly this circumstance. Not complaining, you understand, just marveling.

Recount requested in CD23 Republican runoff

This race is still unsettled.

Raul Reyes announced Friday night that he will seek a recount in the razor-thin Republican primary runoff to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in his national battleground district.

Reyes’ announcement came after the Texas GOP certified the results of his July 14 runoff against Tony Gonzales. The campaigns said the final margin was Gonzales by 45 votes, though the party had not confirmed that as of late Friday night.

“We worked too hard, for too long, not to ensure every legal vote was counted properly,” Reyes said in a statement.

Reyes’ move all but ensures another chapter in the dramatic runoff, particularly when it comes to endorsements. President Donald Trump supported Gonzales, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz backed Reyes.

Reyes came out of Election Night down seven votes and did not concede, wanting to see the counting of final mail-in, provisional and military-overseas ballots. As those came in over the past few weeks, Gonzales repeatedly claimed victory and increasingly urged the party to unify for November. But Reyes held firm against conceding and began fundraising for a potential recount while waiting for the state party canvass.

Take all the time you need, fellas. Gina Ortiz Jones will be over here, doing actual campaigning and figuring out all the ways she’s gonna kick whoever’s butt it is that comes out of this.

County Clerk touts curbside voting, asks for more early voting

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Friday, July 10, the last day of Early Voting during the July Primary Runoff Elections, the Harris County Clerk’s Office piloted Drive-Thru Voting as an additional option for voters to cast their ballot safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time in Texas history that an elections office held Drive-Thru Voting, where many voters at a time could cast their ballot without leaving the comfort and safety of their car.

“My number one priority is to keep voters and poll workers safe,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “The feedback we received from the Drive-Thru Voting pilot proves that voters felt safe exercising their right to vote and that it was an easy and efficient alternative to going inside a voting center. We are exploring options to expand this program for the November General Election at select locations as another method of voting during COVID-19.”

Voters raved about the experience. Of the 200 voters who voted at the Drive-Thru Voting site, 141 completed an optional survey reviewing the new service. Some wrote that Drive-Thru Voting was “easy to use” and others cited how the service “made voters feel safe.” One respondent even wrote that it was their “best voting experience EVER!”

Voters would overwhelmingly use the service again and recommend it to others. When asked on a scale of 0 through 10, with 10 being extremely likely, whether they would consider using the same service if it is provided again in the future, voters on average gave a score of 9.70. On the same scale, when asked whether they would recommend Drive-Thru Voting to another voter, voters on average gave a score of 9.66.

Fear of exposure to COVID-19 was the top reason for using Drive-Thru Voting. When asked why voters chose to vote using the Drive-Thru Voting service as opposed to the traditional walk-in voting method, 82 (58%) cited worries about health and safety in the midst of the pandemic. Other frequently mentioned reasons included the convenience of the service and pure curiosity about the experience of Drive-Thru Voting.

Drive-Thru Voting was piloted from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM on Friday, July 10th, 2020, at Houston Community College – West Loop.

There’s a video at the link if you want to see it for yourself. Curbside has been done in some other locations, and it was specifically discussed as an option, in a much larger and more ambitious context, in this Chron story from April, by poli sci professor Bob Stein. There are limiting factors to doing this – the equipment is difficult to move, it’s labor intensive, and those combine to make the process slow things down for other voters, at least when this is done on an ad hoc basis. Done like this, where there’s a set number of designated locations for curbside might be more feasible, depending on how many people want to use it. I don’t want to come off like Debbie Downer here, this is a great example of outside-the-box thinking, it’s just that there are challenges that would need to be addressed to do this at anything approaching scale.

One thing that everyone would agree worked well for the July runoffs was expanded early voting. Hollins also sent a letter to Greg Abbott to remind him that he promised us more early voting in November as well.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the early voting period for the November general election to ensure residents can cast ballots safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor Wednesday, Hollins asked for at least one additional week of balloting, and urged Abbott to set a schedule by the end of July. Early voting is scheduled to begin Oct. 19; Election Day is Nov. 3.

“It is crucial that elections officials and voters know the amount of time early voting will take place so that the many required complicated elections plans may be undertaken,” Hollins wrote. “Without that information, full planning and preparation for this important election cannot be undertaken.”

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. Hollins noted that Abbott added extra days of early voting during the July primary runoffs, which were rescheduled from May because of the pandemic.

See here for your reminder about Abbott’s promise, and here for a copy of Hollins’ letter, which footnotes the Texas Tribune story that reported on Abbott’s extended early voting promise. I’d like to see early voting extended by two weeks, starting on October 5, but I’ll settle for one is that’s all Abbott is willing to give. It’s the best way – well, the second best way, after expanded voting by mail, which we’re not going to get – to keep the voters safe. Hollins is right, the sooner Abbott makes good on his promise, the better.

Some brief runoff thoughts

You know the drill here…

– The Election Night Results page at the SOS shows 955,735 votes total in the Democratic Senate runoff. That number is likely to increase a bit over the next few days, as we’ll see shortly. It means about 300K votes were cast on Tuesday, a bit more than thirty percent of the overall total. This turnout is the highest of any Democratic primary runoff since 1990, back when Dems were the dominant party.

– That turnout was fueled in part by the Senate runoff, and in part by a burning anger at the botched pandemic response and zealous attempts by the Republicans to curtail mail voting. Some national folks commented on this, and how it maybe lends credence to the whole “Texas is in play” narrative, and not just at the Presidential level. We’ll keep checking on the polls going forward to see how far that carries us.

– As there were no statewide Republican runoffs, a direct turnout comparison is tricky. The early voting total for Republicans was 421K, not too shabby all things considered. So maybe they got to 600K or a bit higher.

– Let’s talk mail ballots for a minute. Texas Elects has a terrific overview, but let’s focus on this:

Absentee ballots are counted by a subset of election officials known as the Early Voting Ballot Board (EVBB). Well, in many counties, there are two EVBBs for primary and runoff elections. County political party chairs are the presiding judges, and there are at least two other members. A separate Signature Verification Committee with as many as 12 members may also be created, and larger committees are possible. If you’re interested in the minutiae of all this, the Secretary of State’s 2020 EVBB handbook (pdf) has it in spades.

Counties with a population of 100,000 were able to convene their Early Voting Ballot Boards as early as July 4 (likely July 6 because of the holiday) to begin the process of qualifying and scanning mail ballots. Counties with populations under 100,000 were able to convene their EVBBs as early as last Friday.

An absentee ballot may only be accepted if:

  • The carrier envelope was “properly executed”
  • The voter’s signatures on the ballot application and carrier envelope were not signed by someone else, unless it was a lawful witness
  • The ballot application states a legal ground for voting by mail (In other words, one of the pre-printed boxes is checked or otherwise marked and the voter hasn’t hand-written some other reason, like coronavirus)
  • The voter is registered to vote
  • The ballot was sent to the applicable address; and
  • If required, a statement of residence was included and properly completed.
  • It also has to be received by the county election official by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day, with exceptions for certain overseas civilians and military voters.

When the EVBB accepts the ballot, the voter’s name is entered on the poll list and the ballot is separated from the envelope. The ballots cannot be counted until polls closed on Friday, the end of the early voting period, in counties with 100K or more residents, and until polls open tomorrow (Tuesday) in all other counties.

This is an easily overwhelmed process. All of this requires human intervention. Absentee ballots arriving by 7 p.m. on Election Day are supposed to be counted and included in election night results. There is reason to believe that a significant number of absentee ballots will arrive very late in the process. For example, as of Friday, Harris Co. had received more than 70K absentee ballots, and another 74K had not yet been returned.

Mail ballots received on Election Day are still treated as “early voting” and will be included within the early vote canvass. In close races, we will be noting who is ahead among absentee ballots, as that may provide an advantage as more votes are counted. Or not.

All of this is to put perspective on why we may not have definitive results on Election night. All of this may be magnified in November, and not just in Texas.

That’s why the final vote totals may creep up a bit, and also something to think about for the fall. You may want to ask your local elections administrator what you can do to help.

More along those same lines.

As dress rehearsals go, Tuesday’s Texas primary runoff elections weren’t bad, but for some voters and poll workers, they revealed problems that need to be fixed before November’s big show.

With much lower turnout than primary or general elections, the first in-person election day during the coronavirus pandemic saw voters reporting heavily sanitized polling places, an ample supply of gloves, finger cots or pencils to mark up their ballots, and socially distanced lines. With a tiny ballot in many places, some were in and out of polling places in minutes.

But some Texans who sought to vote by mail — and submitted their applications on time — indicated they never received their ballots. Some opted instead to vote in person. Others went uncounted. It’s unknown how many were affected.

Other voters sent in their mail-in ballots only to have them returned unopened. Some of those reached county elections offices after a second attempt, while others still appeared lost on election night. It’s also unknown how many were affected.

In some counties, previously advertised polling places were shuttered at the last minute for lack of workers, some fearing the pandemic or reluctant to risk exposure to voters who were not required to wear masks. Others walked off the job Tuesday morning after discovering some of their fellow poll workers wouldn’t be donning masks.

And throughout the night, the Texas secretary of state’s portal for reporting election night returns was either broken or incorrect, first displaying garbled numbers in various races on the ballot and later showing discrepancies with county reports.

“I would say a number of the problems we saw in this election are red flags that, left unaddressed, could result in massive problems in November,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

At least the SOS website got fixed in relatively short order. The rest of it, yeah. No one should have to do this to cast a ballot.

– Looks like there will be a fight over the CD23 Republican result. Good luck sorting that one out, fellas.

– The SD14 special election runoff needs to be scheduled. I expect it to be in the end of August or so. My condolences to everyone in that district who will have to see two perfectly good Democrats rip each other up for the next six weeks or so.

– Beyond that, I don’t have any deep insights at this time. We’ve got a good slate of candidates, and as of Wednesday we’ll start seeing June finance reports for everyone. Eyes on the prize in November, y’all.

2020 primary runoff results: Congress

I’m going to bullet point these just for simplicity. There will be news stories to look at later.

CD03 Dem: Lulu Seikaly cruised to an easy win here. She was just over 60% at around 10 PM, with some Election Day precincts in.

CD10 Dem: Looking good for Mike Siegel, who is leading in Harris and Travis counties, where most of the votes are.

CD24 Dem: This was surprisingly not close, as Candace Valenzuela led early thanks to a big lead in Dallas County, but as of 10 PM she was also leading in Tarrant and Denton. A really hard-fought battle, with Valenzuela gaining a ton of momentum and stepping up her fundraising as the election neared. This is one of those where you might wonder if things would have been different with the runoff in May as originally scheduled.

CD31 Dem: Donna Imam takes it in both Williamson and Bell counties for the win.

On the Republican side, Ronny Jackson in CD13, Pete Sessions (yeah, that guy again) in CD17, Troy Nehls in CD22 (say goodbye to another $8 million, Kathaleen Wall) are all winners. I’m not prepared to all CD23 between Raul Reyes (endorsed by Ted Cruz) and Tony Gonzales (endorsed by Donald Trump). There were other runoffs, but all involving candidates with no hope to win in November, so I’m not too worried about them. The Texas Tribune has a good result tracker for both parties if you want to be a completist.

UPDATE: Tony Gonzales has slipped ahead of Raul Reyes in CD23, but the contest has not been called yet, and Reyes has not conceded.

2020 primary runoff results: SBOE, Senate, House

Again, bullet points. Get used to it.

SBOE6 Dem: Michelle Palmer had a 65-35 lead after early voting, and that was pretty much all there was to it.

SBOE5 GOP: It’s much more boring and sedate, but the Republican candidate who didn’t arrive in a clown car, Lani Popp, defeated performance artist and semi-professional troll Robert Morrow. This is the best pickup opportunity for Dems, but since no one pays attention to SBOE races – the district are ginormous and candidates never have any money – there would have been a chance Morrow could have won if he’d been the nominee. Having Popp carry the GOP banner lowers the Dem chances slightly, but as we know from other elections it’s never a good idea for a chaos agent to be a viable candidate in any race. Whatever happens in November, this was the better outcome.

SD14 special election: Sarah Eckhardt has been over fifty percent all night. This may change by the morning, but as I type this she appears to be headed for a victory without a runoff.

UPDATE: The final results from Travis County show Sarah Eckhardt winning with 51.1%, but I’d forgotten that Bastrop County is also in SD14, and Eckhardt is only at 31% there thanks to 38% of the vote going to Republican Don Zimmerman. It appears that is enough to keep her under 50%, which means a runoff with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

SD19 Dem: State Rep. Roland Gutierrez has bounced back from his second place finish in March to lead 53-47 as I write this. Seems likely he’ll hand on.

SD27 Dem: Alas, Sen. Eddie Lucio has also hung on, leading 54-46 in the later evening. I believe he said this would be his last term. We can only hope.

State House Dem Sarah DeMerchant will get her third shot at HD26 in Fort Bend County. In Harris County, Akilah Bacy crushed it in HD138, Rep. Harold Dutton eked it out in HD142, and going late into the night, Penny Shaw was leading Anna Eastman in HD148. Eastman had a sizable lead in mail ballots – her campaign worked that pretty hard – but Shaw equaled that in early votes, and had a small but growing lead on Election Day. Anna’s a friend and I’m sad for her, but Shaw appears to be the nominee. I suspect – and I’d have said this regardless of who won – there will be another hotly contested primary in HD148 in 2022. It’s a fact of life with redistricting, and there’s a high potential for the neighborhoods in and around HD148 to be swapped in and out of various districts, as was the case in 2011. (I personally was at various times that year drawn into HDs 134, 143, 146, 147, and 148, before finally landing in 145. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.)

In Dallas, Lorraine Birabil, who had won the special election in HD100 and was leading by enough early on for me to say she had won, was trailing Jasmine Crockett by about 90 votes late in the evening, with three vote centers yet to report. (Hat tip to Scott Braddock and his indefatigable Twitter feed.) Elsewhere, Liz Campos won in HD119, while Lorenzo Sanchez (HD67) had a small lead. Two Republican incumbents were ousted, Dan Flynn (HD02) and JD Sheffield (HD59). Jacey Jetton had a modest lead in HD26.

UPDATE: Birabil is still trailing Crockett in HD100, but it’s not quite final yet.

Today is Primary Runoff Day

Last chance to vote for your party’s nominees. From the inbox:

Today, Tuesday, July 14th, is Election Day for the July 2020 Primary Runoff Elections.Voters can cast their ballots anytime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at any of the 109 voting centers throughout Harris County. For the nearest voting location and estimated wait times go to HarrisVotes.com/WaitTimes. A total of 154,313 voters cast their ballots during the ten-day Early Voting period that concluded on Friday, July 10th.

“These are challenging times for all of us, but I want to encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “This runoff is a critical part of the election process, because it will determine which candidates go on to represent their parties in the General Election in November.”

To protect voters and election workers from COVID-19, all voting centers have been set up to allow for social distancing.  Poll workers have been provided with personal protective equipment including gloves, face masks, and shields. Sanitizing stations are set up at all polling sites, and voters are being provided with finger covers to use while voting. Additional face masks are available for voters who do not have one. Voters exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 can vote curbside to avoid entering the polling center.

To cast a ballot, you must be registered to vote and have one of the following forms of ID:

  • Texas Driver License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS);
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate (EIC) issued by DPS;
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS;
  • Texas License to Carry a Handgun (LTC) issued by DPS;
  • U.S. Military ID Card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. Passport.

Except for the U.S. citizenship certificate, the form of identification you use must be current or have expired no more than four years before being presented at the polls. If you don’t have any of these to use for identification, you can (1) sign a sworn statement explaining why you don’t have those IDs and (2) bring one of the following:

  • Valid voter registration certificate;
  • Certified birth certificate;
  • Current utility bill;
  • Government check;
  • Pay stub or bank statement that includes your name and address; or
  • Copy of or original government document with your name and an address (original required if it contains a photograph).

To expedite your time at the polls, go to HarrisVotes.com to print your personal sample ballot, make your selections, and take it with you when you go vote. If you start the voting process and think you have received the wrong ballot, make sure you let an election official know immediately—before casting your vote.

For more election information, visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also from the inbox, a list of places you can drop off your mail ballot if you didn’t receive it in time to put it in the mail. This is the first time in recent history that there has been more than a single drop-off location in Harris County, as the release says, which is cool. The 11 locations listed there are open 7 to 7, same as the period for voting.

Polling locations can be found here. As a reminder, you can vote at any of these locations. My guess is that the large majority of votes have already been cast for this runoff, so the lines should not be too bad. Do check the wait times at whatever location you’re looking at before heading out, though. And for crying out loud, bring a mask to wear. It’s precisely that mask wearing was not mandated for polling places that has caused some problems in other counties.

A lack of workers willing to run polling sites as Texas continues to report record coronavirus infections is forcing election officials in two major counties to scale back plans for the July 14 primary runoff elections.

Citing a drop-off spurred by fear of the virus, Bexar County, the state’s fourth largest, is expected to close at least eight of its planned 226 voting locations for next Tuesday, according to County Judge Nelson Wolff.

In Tarrant County, the third largest, election officials learned Thursday that the local Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to shutter two of 173 sites planned for election day voting after the parties were unable to find election judges to run the polling places.

Although poll workers are generally being provided with protective gear, Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks when they show up at polling locations is driving some poll workers away, Wolff said.

“There is protection for them in terms of what they try to do, but anybody can walk in without a mask,” Wolff said Wednesday evening during his daily coronavirus-related briefing. “The governor did not cover elections, and so they don’t want to work. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.”

For this election, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. There should be plenty of other locations, most people have probably already voted, and turnout is fairly minimal, though it’s been higher than usual for a primary runoff. The fear, and the bigger picture, is what might happen in November. All signs point to record-breaking turnout this fall, and the last thing we’ll need for that is a scramble for poll workers. I appreciate that Greg Abbott extended early voting for this runoff – I think it made a positive difference – and I believe that will be in play for November. But I refuse to accept that anyone who doesn’t have a valid health reason to not wear a mask should have their personal preferences prioritized over the health and safety of poll workers. The mask mandate needs to extend to the polling places. We’re not taking this seriously enough otherwise.

I’ll have results for you tomorrow, and whatever thoughts I can muster afterward. I’ll look at the data when it’s available. Now go vote if you haven’t already.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Final Totals: Democrats carry the day

Today’s going to be a numbers-heavy post. Let’s start with Texas Elects, giving us a penultimate day summary:

Early voting in person ended today (Friday) for the July 14 primary runoff and special elections.

Through yesterday (Thursday), 532K people have voted in the Democratic runoff statewide – 193K by mail and 339K in person – which is already the fourth highest total since 1990. The number of voters will almost certainly eclipse the 2014 total today (Friday) and should easily pass the 2002 total on Election Day. The highest number of Democratic runoff voters since 1990 was in 1994, when 747K people voted in the runoff statewide.

Nearly 349K people have voted in the Republican runoff in those counties and portions of counties with runoff races – 97K by mail and 251K in person. Despite the lack of a statewide race, the number of Republican runoff votes cast is already the fifth highest in state history, trailing only the past four election cycles. Turnout is on pace to eclipse all but the 2014 (1.36M) and 2012 (1.11M) totals.

Statewide Democratic turnout through yesterday was 3.25% of all registered voters, and Republican turnout was 2.13% of all registered voters, not just those in areas with runoff races. Combined turnout for all of 2018 was 5.7%, and it was 4.0% in 2016.

The reference to 2014 is surely a mistake, as there were only 201K votes cast in the Senate runoff between David Alameel and Keisha Rogers that year. There were 434K votes in the 2018 gubernatorial runoff between Andrew White and Lupe Valdez, but 2020 was already past that total as of Thursday. I’ve looked at some other years but am just not sure what that third “highest since 1990” total may be.

I can tell you where we are as of Friday statewide:


Election     Mail      Early      Total   Mail %
================================================
D primary 114,886    886,336  1,001,222    11.5%
R primary  91,415    987,744  1,079,159     8.5%

D runoff  199,657    447,470    647,127    30.9%
R runoff   99,939    311,222    411,161    24.3%

We have now topped the 2002 Senate runoff between Ron Kirk and Victor Morales (620K), and I have no doubt we will blow past the 1994 level on Tuesday. That’s not too shabby. Data on the Secretary of State website only goes back to 1992, so I don’t know what the 1990 primary runoffs looked like, but 1990 was the last year of Democratic statewide dominance in Texas. That’s not a bad harbinger to echo.

How much does any of this mean, though? Erica Greider thinks Republicans should be worried.

“I think we’re seeing the ramifications of having failed Republican leadership, and no one is seeing it more than those of us here in Texas,” said Billy Begala, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.

Begala made his remarks Friday morning, the last day of early voting in advance of Tuesday’s primary runoff elections.

“It didn’t have to be this bad,” he said of the resurgence of COVID-19 in Texas. “It really didn’t.”

[…]

The coronavirus has complicated elections administration. Democratic officials have been urging Texans to vote by mail, if they’re eligible. And Texans who’ve gone to the polls in person have noticed unusual precautions, in most of the state’s major counties. In Harris County, for example, voters have been provided with rubber finger cots and disinfectant wipes as well as the traditional “I voted” stickers.

Still, turnout — which is typically abysmal for runoff elections in Texas — has been higher than expected through the early voting period. As of Thursday, some 900,000 voters had cast ballots across the state, a majority of them in the Democratic primary runoff.

“The key takeaway is that if we’re able to make voters feel safe, and of course be safe, then it’s a very positive experience for them,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Friday.

The turnout through the early-voting period, he continued, raises the prospect that Harris County will see higher turnout in November than the 60 to 62 percent that’s typical in presidential election years.

“If I were a betting man I’d put money on 65 for sure, and I might take some odds on 70,” Hollins said.

Voter registration, similarly, has continued apace, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Since March, nearly 149,000 voters have been added to the rolls in Texas, bringing the statewide electorate to a record 16.4 million people.

I haven’t seen an official number for Harris County voter registration yet – we’ll know it for sure when we get election night returns – but I’ve heard 2.4 million at this time. At 62% turnout, about what we usually get in Presidential years, that’s a bit short of 1.5 million votes in Harris County. 65% is 1.56 million, 70% is approaching 1.7 million. That’s going to be more Democratic votes than it is Republican votes. It’s just a matter of how many.

Still, Republicans should be nervous about surging July turnout given that Democrats don’t have a marquee name on the ballot like former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who excited Democrats nationwide in his near-miss U.S. Senate bid in 2018.

“I don’t know that here in Texas we have one specific candidate or officeholder who is the standard-bearer for the party,” Begala acknowledged.

Perhaps voters are simply fed up with the incumbents, who happen to be Republicans, for the most part.

“I think it’s that when voters look around right now, when Texans look around right now, they see a pandemic, they see horrific racial injustice, they see record unemployment,” said Amanda Sherman, the communications director for Hegar. “Voting is a way for them to do something about it.”

I’m not sure that the high runoff turnout matters that much for November, but it does show that even in the pandemic Dems are turning out. There’s evidence from around the country that relentless Republican efforts to make voting harder have resulted in hardier and more persistent voters, especially Black voters. Maybe we’re seeing some of that here.

What you’re really here for is the final EV report from Harris County. Here it is:


Election     Mail    Early    Total   Mail %
============================================
D primary  22,785  116,748  139,533    16.3%
R primary  22,801   82,108  104,909    21.7%

D runoff   45,176   65,979  111,105    40.7%
R runoff   25,425   17,783   43,208    58.8%

The Friday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. 18,526 Democrats showed up to vote in person on Friday. That’s more than the entire early voting in person population for the Republicans, who didn’t have a statewide race but did have a couple of countywide races. And as noted, Republicans were far more reliant on a rate basis on mail ballots than Dems were, though Dems returned far more mail ballots. You can draw your own conclusions.

I promised you more data about the early voting population, at least through Wednesday. I’m a man of my word, so here’s what I found when I examined age and gender data for the primary runoff.

Among the mail voters, there were 16 people born prior to 1920, with the oldest being born in 1915. Another 10 were born in 1920. In other words, 26 people who are at least 100 years old had voted as of Wednesday.

The daily voter rosters do not include year of birth or gender, only the full March roster does. As such, I only have that data for the people who had also voted in March. Of 41,739 total mail voters who had voted in March, 40,195 are 65 or older. The remaining 1,544 are under 65.

23,373 of the 65 or older mail voters are female, including 15 of the 16 pre-1920-birth voters and eight of the ten born in 1920. 58.1% of mail voters are listed as female. 16,230 are listed as male, for 40.4% of over-65 mail voters.

868 of the 1,544 under-65 mail voters are female (56.2%), 641 are male (41.5%).

(For some voters, the value in the Gender field is null, which may be a data glitch, or may be a stated preference of the voter. Because the number is so small, and because as far as I know there is no other option for this field that is allowed by state law, I suspect this is just a data error.)

I did not extend this to the in person early voters – I promise, I’ll circle back when I get the full voter roster for the runoff. But Keir Murray posted some facts about the voting data through Thursday:

Click over to see the rest of the thread. Keir also notes that the statewide mix of Dem primary runoff voters is more Black than Latino, which is the reverse of what it was in March. Maybe that will boost Royce West in the Senate race, we’ll see. I will have election night returns for you on Wednesday. If you haven’t voted yet, Tuesday is your last chance.

How can you vote if you currently have coronavirus?

There is one way, if it is approved.

Thousands of Harris County voters who recently have tested positive for coronavirus and now are quarantined should be allowed to vote online in the primary runoff election, County Attorney Vince Ryan argued in an emergency court filing Thursday.

The novel voting method has never been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

If approved by a state district judge, the estimated 10,000 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the July 2 deadline to apply for a mail ballot would be allowed to submit a ballot via email. Forcing infected residents to vote in person would risk “putting thousands of other voters at risk,” Ryan wrote.

“The effect of this is to leave thousands of Harris County voters with a choice: 1, violate their quarantine and risk exposing poll workers and other voters to a deadly virus, or 2, become disenfranchised and lose their constitutional right to vote,” Ryan said. “That is a choice no Texan should be forced to make.”

A hearing [was] scheduled in the 80th District Court for 4 p.m. Friday. Ryan filed the brief on behalf of County Clerk Christopher Hollins.

The Dallas County elections administrator in 2014 obtained a court order allowing residents quarantined by the Ebola outbreak to submit mail ballots via email.

The Texas Election Code also permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas.

[…]

Ryan said Harris County’s request follows COVID-19 elections guidance issued in April by Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, which said counties may want to consider seeking court orders to expand voting options for quarantined voters. A spokesman for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I admit, I did not know that this was a possible option. It makes sense, and in practical terms it’s likely that only a small number of people would actually vote in this fashion. I mean, even with record-breaking turnout in this primary runoff, we’re still going to fall short of ten percent of all registered voters in Harris County. More to the point, given that most of the people who would have voted in this election already have, we’re talking maybe two or three percent turnout among those who have not yet cast a ballot, so maybe 200 or 300 people total. I’d still take the under on that bet. But the principle is solid, and if the law allows for this, then by all means let’s do it. I assume we’ll get a quick ruling on this, I’ll keep my eyes open for confirmation of that and will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: And the answer is no.

A state district judge on Friday denied a request by Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins to allow thousands of voters who recently tested positive for coronavirus, and now are quarantined, to vote online in the primary runoff election.

The novel voting method never has been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Judge Larry Weiman, however, said he shared concerns raised by the Harris County Republican Party that online voting was not secure. Weiman, a Democrat, also said at the emergency telephone hearing that the county clerk had not produced an example of a voter being disenfranchised by exposure to coronavirus.

“The plaintiff hasn’t shown any injured party,” Weiman said.

[…]

The Harris County Republican Party and Texas Attorney General’s office argued against the plan. Assistant Attorney General Anne Mackin said Hollins’ proposal amounted to a “rewrite of the Texas Election Code,” which already provides ill voters a method to vote by mail after missing the application deadline, so long as they are able to physically produce a doctor’s note.

Hollins sought to have that requirement waived in favor of an emailed statement certifying a voter has been exposed to COVID, saying infected residents or members of their household risk infecting county employees by delivering a form to a public building.

“It’s inappropriate to substitute a new process,” Mackin said.

The Election Code permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas. Attorney and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, and attorney Kevin Fulton argued on behalf of the Republicans that method requires service members to use secure email addresses which allow elections administrators to verify their identities.

Weiman said he shared these concerns about security. He invited the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Election Code if lawmakers feel they are needed.

It was a nice idea while it lasted, but there would have been issues. The fact that there were no named voters asking for this is a legitimate point. It would have been very nice to be able to test something like this in a low-stakes primary runoff, in case it’s needed in November, but I think we probably do need to have the Lege address some issues first. There are ways to make this process secure, none of which I suspect would have been available now, and the need for a written-on-paper doctor’s note is obviously archaic. If this experience can serve as a template for updating the relevant bits of the election code, it will still have been a useful exercise.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Thursday: In which I get a look at the vote rosters

What’s a vote roster, you say? It’s a detailed list of everyone who voted in a particular election. You can find some recent ones, mostly pertaining to the 2020 elections so far, here. I’ve used the rosters from past elections to do some deeper analysis of our city election voters.

And now I’ve turned that attention to the 2020 primary and primary runoff voters. I started out with an interest in the people who have voted by mail in the runoff, as there are many more of them than there were in March. How had they voted in March? More to the point, how many of them had not voted at all in March? In other words, what was the effect of the County Clerk sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter 65 and older in the county?

Well, I’ll tell you. The following data is for early voting and vote by mail through Wednesday, July 8:

For the Democrats, there have been 41,531 total mail ballots cast in the runoff. Of those,
– 15,895 people voted by mail in the primary
– 7,052 people voted early in person in the primary
– 4,361 people voted on Election Day in the primary
– 14,223 people did not vote in the primary

Also for the Dems, there have been 40,387 early votes in person so far in the runoff. Of those,
– 135 people voted by mail in the primary
– 21,375 people voted early in person in the primary
– 10,210 people voted on Election Day in the primary
– 8,667 people did not vote in the primary

In summary, 27.9% of all Dem runoff voters did not vote in March. And 34.2% of all runoff votes cast by mail came from people who had not voted in March.

How about the Republicans? There have been 23,585 total Republican votes by mail in the runoff. Of those,
– 12,121 people voted by mail in the primary
– 1,500 people voted early in person in the primary
– 816 people voted on Election Day in the primary
– 9,148 did not vote in the primary

Also for the GOP, there have been 11,833 early votes in person so far in the runoff. Of those,
– 130 people voted by mail in the primary
– 7,671 people voted early in person in the primary
– 1,520 people voted on Election Day in the primary
– 2,512 people did not vote in the primary

So, 32.9% of all GOP runoff voters did not vote in March, and 38.8% of all runoff votes cast by mail came from people who had not voted in March. How about that?

I’m working on some more data and will present that over the weekend. In the meantime, here are the updated early vote totals:


Election     Mail    Early    Total   Mail %
============================================
D primary  21,658   82,365  104,023    20.8%
R primary  21,340   65,783   87,123    24.5%

D runoff   43,000   47,389   90,389    47.6%
R runoff   24,724   13,679   38,403    64.3%

The Thursday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. It looks like there had been an error in an earlier days’s reporting, which had shown nearly zero mail ballots received – I think it was the Tuesday report. That has been corrected, which is why there’s such a large increase in today’s mail ballot total. Dems topped 7K in person voters, their highest single day yet, while Republicans have still not seen as many as 2K in person voters. Today should be the busiest day, and voting hours are extended till 10 PM. I’ll have the final wrapup on Sunday.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Wednesday: This is all the vote by mail we’re going to get

I’m going to start this update off with a bummer of a legal analysis from Vox’s Ian Millhiser:

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means that older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

The Supreme Court’s orders in Merrill and Texas Democratic Party fit a pattern. Last April, in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court granted a request from the Republican Party, and ordered all ballots mailed after a certain date in Wisconsin’s April elections to be tossed out — a decision that, in practice, likely forced thousands of voters to risk infection in order to cast an in-person ballot.

The Court’s decision in Republican National Committee was also 5-4, with all five Republican justices in the majority and all four Democrats in dissent.

In recent weeks, the Court has handed down a handful of left-leaning decisions — including a narrow decision temporarily preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and an even narrower decision striking down a Louisiana anti-abortion law.

But on the most important question in a democracy — whether citizens are empowered to choose their own leaders — this Supreme Court remains unsympathetic to parties seeking to protect the right to vote, despite the greatest public health crisis in more than a century.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern drew similar conclusions. None of this means that these cases won’t get heard on their merits – this one, the other one that directly challenged the 65-and-over provision on 26th amendment grounds, and the lawsuit alleging other obstacles to voting – will get their day in court, and the age discrimination claims will have a decent shot at prevailing. Just, not before this election. It’ll happen eventually, in the fullness of time, because obviously there was no pressing need to address this matter now. Who ever heard of such a thing?

Anyway. Here are the updated early vote totals:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  19,400   66,318  85,718    22.6%
R primary  20,393   55,489  75,882    26.9%

D runoff   38,066   40,301  78,367    48.6%
R runoff   23,589   11,795  35,384    66.7%

The Wednesday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. Today happened to be a quiet day for mail ballots on the Dem side, but a new high for in person votes. It’s possible Dems will get to 100K by the end of the EV period. My guess is that a large majority of the vote will be cast early, but we’ll see.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Tuesday: A history of Democratic primary runoffs

Yesterday I said that the turnout so far in the 2020 Democratic primary runoff was already historic. Today I’m going to show my work on that. Herewith is the 21st century history of Democratic primary runoff turnout for Harris County:


Year    Turnout  Top race
=========================
2002     64,643    Senate
2006     12,542    Senate
2008      9,670       RRC
2010     15,225  Judicial
2012     29,912    Senate
2014     18,828    Senate
2016     30,334       RRC
2018     57,590  Governor
2020     72,838    Senate

The only primary runoff on the ballot in 2004 was for Constable in Precinct 7. We’ve come a long way, and please don’t forget that. We had just nudged past that 2002 mark as of yesterday, and now we are putting distance between it and this year. I didn’t include mail ballots in this accounting for two reasons. One, they didn’t quantify mail ballots in 2002, and two, this year is way off the charts compared to years prior. 2018 and 2016 are the only reasonable comps, and they both fall well short, with 19,472 mail ballots in 2018 and 11,433 in 2016. We had each of those beat on Day One.

With that, here’s the chart for this year as of today:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  18,503   54,325  72,828    25.4%
R primary  19,690   47,271  66,961    29.4%

D runoff   38,026   34,812  72,838    52.2%
R runoff   22,351   10,215  32,566    68.6%

The Tuesday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. Second week Tuesday was the first big turnout day for the primary, and where Dems started separating from Republicans overall. This Tuesday was by a small amount the biggest day so far for Dems, though Monday had a slightly higher in person count. This is undoubtedly where the March turnout begins to exceed the July turnout, but this runoff is now officially leaving all previous primary runoffs in the dust.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Monday: A statewide look

I’m not going to keep track of what day number we’re at now, as it doesn’t really make sense anymore. But what we can do right now is have a look at how each party is doing with mail votes. Here’s a quick comparison to March, with primary data for the entire early voting period, and runoff data through Sunday:


Election     Mail      Early      Total   Mail %
================================================
D primary 114,886    886,336  1,001,222    11.5%
R primary  91,415    987,744  1,079,159     8.5%

D runoff  153,239    155,101    308,340    49.7%
R runoff   81,421    131,142    212,563    38.3%

These are just early voting totals – there were still a bunch of votes cast on Election Day, all of which were of course in person. Dems did quite well with absentee ballots in the primary, which I would attribute largely to efforts in the big counties. About 28K of those Dem mail votes came from Harris, for example.

That was all done without a big push to get people who are eligible to vote by mail to do so. In the runoff, everyone has heard a lot about voting by mail, and everyone has concerns about their own safety voting in person. It’s not a big surprise then that the number of mail ballots has surged, in relative terms for both parties and in absolute terms for Dems; I expect Republicans will surpass their mail total from March as well this week. Other counties are carrying a bigger share of the load for Dems – while Harris made up almost 25% of the total mail ballots for Dems in March, they’re at about 21% so far in the runoff. I don’t have numbers from other counties but my understanding is that over 90% of the Harris mail ballots are coming from the 65 and over crowd, so it’s mostly people taking advantage of something that was already available to them. And good for them, because that’s exactly what they should be doing. I hope that continues right on through the end of the week.

As for where we are now in Harris:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  16,651   44,339  60,990    27.3%
R primary  18,949   39,207  58,156    32.6%

D runoff   34,782   29,978  64,760    53.7%
R runoff   21,409    8,691  30,100    71.1%

The Monday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. If you’re thinking “Hey, this looks like higher turnout for a party primary runoff than what we’re used to seeing”, you are correct. I will discuss that in more detail next time.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day Five/Six: Apples and Oranges

We are at the end of the first official early voting week for the 2020 primary runoffs. At this point, there have been five actual early voting days, as Friday and Saturday the polls were closed for the Independence Day holiday. At this same point for the March primary, we had had six days of actual voting, with the Monday having been closed for Presidents Day. As such, we are no longer in a position where we can directly compare totals, as the number of days for this point in the calendar is different for each election.

On the other hand, who cares? The slate of elections is very different on each side, with no Presidential race and no statewide Republican races. Indeed, the only countywide Republican races are two judicial contests and Sheriff, none of which are particularly compelling to the average voter. So it’s not at all a surprise that Democrats in Harris, who have a US Senate race on their ballot as well as Railroad Commissioner and three judicial races, are drawing more participants. The comparisons to March are for academic interest, and just as one should be wary about drawing conclusions about November from primary turnout, one should basically banish the thought of such inferences for primary runoffs.

With one exception, I’d say, and that’s due to this:

Most Texans will now have to wear a mask to the grocery store, hair salon and bus stop — but not to the voting booth during ongoing primary runoff elections.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask order exempts “any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher, or actively administering an election,” but he adds that “wearing a face covering is strongly encouraged.”

The order appears to make Texas the only state in the country that exempts voting from a mask mandate. Twenty-one states require masks statewide, according to Masks4All, a volunteer organization that advocates for more mask-wearing.

[…]

“Issuing the mandatory mask order and encouraging everyone to stay home is the right thing to do right now, considering the mess we’re in,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause Texas. “But the right thing to do months ago to avoid this very easily foreseeable mess was to allow all Texans to vote by mail so that no one would now find themselves having to choose between voting and endangering their health.”

Guiterrez added that it’s not too late for the governor to take actions to expand mail-in voting in November.

[…]

One possible explanation for the exemption could be a constitutional concern, said Scott Keller, former Texas Solicitor General and attorney at international law firm Baker Botts. In the same way that masks aren’t required while giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience or while taking part in a religious service because the constitution protects the right to free speech and religion, a legal argument could be made that forcing voters to wear a mask would be a burden on the right to vote, he said.

“I think the governor’s order is trying to balance the exigencies of the COVID emergency with constitutional rights and also taking very seriously the COVID spike in Texas,” Keller said. “The idea that the order excepting out polling places would be something like voter suppression, I think, is completely off base.”

On the other hand, the executive order says that people are not exempt if they are attending a protest or demonstration involving more than 10 people and not practicing safe social distancing of six feet from others who are not in the same household.

“Trying to think and balance every single possible situation out in the world, that’s just not something that is going to be expected of any official, and the courts don’t expect that of any official,” Keller said, adding that during an emergency, “potentially, government officials are going to have a little more leeway than they otherwise would.”

I feel like maybe we could have gotten a more neutral observer than Scott Keller to comment on this, but whatever. I can see the argument that forcing people to wear a mask would be a burden on the right to vote. It’s just that such an argument would be pretty effing rich from the state that has the most restrictive voter ID law in the country, and is currently fighting tooth and nail to prevent an expansion of voting by mail, which is currently only available to people over 65 and anyone with a “disability” that Ken Paxton is willing to recognize and not attempt to prosecute them for. The state of Texas officially believes that fear of contracting and maybe dying of a highly contagious disease that is currently rampaging basically unchecked throughout our state is insufficient grounds for being sent a mail ballot. I’m not saying that a representative from the state Solicitor General’s office would be necessarily be smited by a lightning bolt from the heavens if he attempted to make an argument that wearing a mask constituted an unlawful burden on voters in court, but it would not strike me as an unjust act if it did happen.

Anyway. Here’s where we stand after the first week of some early voting days, with five more days to go:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  15,101   36,712  51,813    29.1%
R primary  16,528   32,630  49,158    33.6%

D runoff   32,309   24,783  57,092    56.6%
R runoff   19,405    7,199  26,604    72.9%

The Sunday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. There are no absentee votes counted during the weekend, so the percentage of absentee votes necessarily falls. It will continue to do so this week as we see more and more in person voters show up. And yet, Republicans remain more dependent on them, in either case.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day Four: Driven by Democrats

Early voting took Friday and yesterday off, but resumes today. Here’s where we stand after the first four days:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  15,101   25,254  40,355    37.4%
R primary  16,528   24,778  41,306    40.0%

D runoff   32,309   21,536  53,845    60.0%
R runoff   19,405    6,568  25,973    74.7%

The Day Four runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. Both Dems and Republicans have been consistent in terms of in person voting, with the daily in person totals for Dems ranging from 5,048 to 5,718 and Republicans from 1,489 to 1,816. Dems do have more and higher profile runoffs, including the US Senate, so don’t draw too much inference from these totals, other than to observe that Dems seem to be willing so far to show up and vote despite the risk. In person voting becomes a larger and larger share of the total vote as we go along and get farther from the day one blob of absentee ballots. Week Two is where the action really starts, and it is highly unlikely Dems will be able to keep pace with March turnout. The comparisons are also going to get a little wonky due to the days off – indeed, the first four days for March were Tuesday through Friday, as Monday had been Presidents’ Day. I may need to fudge things a bit moving forward. However you slice it, while mail ballots have given Dems a boost in July, it’s still the Republicans who depend on them more. Again, make of this what you will.

No fast track on vote by mail lawsuit

I confess, I hadn’t been aware that this was in the hopper.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t fast-track a bid by Texas Democrats to decide whether all Texas voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving in place the state’s current regulations for the upcoming July 14 primary runoff election.

But the case, which now returns to a lower court, could be back before the Supreme Court before the higher-stakes, larger-turnout general election in November. Current law allows voters to mail in their ballots only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail, will be out of the county during the election period or cite a disability or illness. But Texas Democrats have argued that voters who are susceptible to contracting the new coronavirus should be able to vote by mail as the pandemic continues to ravage the state.

Thursday’s one-line, unsigned order denying the Democrats’ effort to get a quick ruling comes a week after another minor loss for them at the high court. On June 26, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a federal judge’s order that would immediately expand vote-by-mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, which brought the case, said the party will “continue to fight tooth and nail for everybody’s right to vote.”

See here for the background, and Rick Hasen for a bit more explanation of what happened. As Michael Li notes, the case now goes back to the Fifth Circuit. I do think this will wind up before SCOTUS prior to November, and the question of the 26th Amendment will be decided, and that’s the more important matter. Given that we’re already voting in the primary runoff and the deadline for requesting a mail ballot has now passed, I don’t think there was much effect of this denial of certiori. If we don’t have an answer for November, that will be a problem.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day One: People seem to like this vote by mail thing

Big surprise, am I right?

Harris County voters cast more than 51,000 ballots Monday in the primary runoffs, an eye-popping total that exceeded turnout for entire runoff elections in some recent years.

Combined with a robust in-person turnout, voters had returned more than 43,000 mail ballots by Monday, the first day of early voting. The turnout nearly doubled the number of votes recorded on the first day of early voting in 2016, the most recent presidential election year. It also eclipsed turnout from the 2018 runoffs, when more than 34,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting.

The surge in voting was largely driven by voters in the Democratic primary, who accounted for 63 percent of the early runoff ballots Monday. And it came weeks after interim County Clerk Chris Hollins sent mail ballot applications to every voter who is 65 and older, which he said was aimed at keeping older voters “safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home.”

Even with concerns about a recent local spike in COVID-19 cases, however, in-person turnout outpaced that of recent election cycles as well. A total of 5,334 Democrats and 1,762 Republicans cast ballots at the county’s 57 polling sites Monday. That is up from the 2,963 recorded the first day of early voting in the 2016 primary runoffs and 4,564 during the midterms.

[…]

The uptick in turnout likley stems from a combination of people paying an unusual amount of attention to politics given their extra free time at home during the pandemic, and a heated political moment fueled by the virus and recent upheaval from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said Houston political analyst Nancy Sims.

“People are at home and they’re paying more attention. They’re not as active and distracted as they normally would be, so you’re seeing a little more interest,” she said. “And it’s just a much more intense year to pay attention to elections. The combination of the protests and covid have made people tune in and become more aware.”

Hollins’ move to send ballots to the roughly 377,000 Harris County voters who are 65 and older — about 16 percent of the voter roll — also helps explain the surge, Sims said. Demand for absentee ballots has increased as well, with about 122,000 ballot requests for the runoffs, compared to 51,065 such requests for the 2016 primary runoffs and 67,735 for this year’s March primary. About 95 percent of the 122,000 mail ballot requests have come from voters who are 65 and older, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

The comparison between the 2020 runoffs and prior elections is skewed by a number of factors. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott delayed the runoff from its original May 26 date until July 14, and doubled the number of early voting days from five to 10.

You can find the Day One early voting report here. As noted, I will generally be a day behind on these, so please bear with me. I’m not sure yet what kind of comparisons I’m going to provide for this, because primary runoff turnout can be so variable and doesn’t really tell you all that much, but I will do this to start off. Here’s a look at the share of the total vote that mail ballots were, in the March primary and now in the runoffs:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  11,571    6,819  18,390    62.9%
R primary  12,890    5,411  18,301    70.4%

D runoff   27,015    5,314  32,349    83.5%
R runoff   16,308    1,762  18,070    90.2%

So, in each case Dems have returned more mail ballots – and as the story notes, there are far more mail ballots left for Dems to return – but as a share of total ballots, Republicans are so far much more dependent on them. Make of that what you will. A statement from the Harris County Clerk is here, and the Texas Standard has more.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Maybe we should have had this election in May

Oh, the irony.

When the coronavirus threat was newer and seemed more immediate, Texas postponed its May elections to pick winners in several party primary runoffs, fearing the health risks of exposing voters and poll workers.

With those statewide elections about to take place, the health risks voters face are now arguably greater than when the runoffs were initially called off.

The virus appears to be in much wider circulation than the original May 26 runoff date, with the state coming off a full week of record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations and several consecutive days of record highs for daily reported infections.

But voters won’t be required to wear masks at polling places. Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier expressed concerns about exposing Texans “to the risk of death” at crowded polling sites, has forbidden local governments from requiring people to wear them in public.

And Texas Republicans, led by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, have successfully fought off legal efforts by Democrats and some voters to let more people vote by mail if they are fearful of being exposed to the virus at polling places.

With early voting starting June 29 and election day July 14, voters are largely left on their own to balance exercising their right to vote against the health risks that come with going to the polls in a pandemic. Some fear endangering themselves, while others fear bringing the virus back into homes they share with immunocompromised loved ones. The runoffs are relatively small elections with low turnout expected — the marquee race is the Democratic showdown to see who will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November — but they’ll prove an instructive test run for what Texas might face come November’s high octane general election.

[…]

Across the state, election administrators have been trying to rework the mechanics of in-person voting to see how safe they can make it. Plastic barriers will go up at check-in stations and poll workers will be wearing an assortment of protective equipment like masks, shields and finger covers. A bounty of hand sanitizer will be at the ready. In some counties, voters will receive styluses or craft sticks to mark up their ballots to avoid contact with voting equipment.

The Texas Secretary of State has offered voters a list of suggestions for keeping safe, like screening themselves for symptoms and bringing their own hand sanitizer to the polls.

Wearing masks is also something voters might want to consider, the state’s chief election officer suggests.

On the one hand, I think it’s very clear that we would have been in a less dangerous situation with the pandemic. Infection and hospitalization rates are higher now and growing, thanks in large part to Greg Abbott’s insistence on “reopening the economy” at all costs. On the other hand, you could argue that we know more about how to mitigate risk than we did even a month ago, and having a lower-turnout election now, with the opportunity to see what works well and what doesn’t, will serve us well for November. That’s grim comfort for anyone who feels like they’re risking their health or the health of a loved one to exercise their right to vote, and it really highlights how poorly the state has done to manage the pandemic, but I think there’s value to it. We have a plan and we’ll get to test-drive it. Still not a great trade, but one hopes we’ll get something out of it.

Hotze versus contact tracing

We should have expected this.

Conservative firebrand Steven Hotze has launched another lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response, joined by current and former lawmakers and several hundred business owners who argue the state’s contact tracing program infringes on their privacy and ability to make a living.

The civil action filed Monday in federal court takes on the disparate operating capacities the governor mandated in his “COVID-19 lottery,” claiming Abbott’s actions have limited restaurants and bars with 25 or 50 percent limits, while bicycle shops, liquor stores, pool cleaners and supermarkets are running at full tilt.

[…]

The lawsuit by Hotze includes nearly 1,500 names. Most are small business owners, but topping the list are state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, former Republican state representatives Gary Elkins, of Houston, Molly White, of Bell County, Rick Green, of Hays County, and former party chair Cathie Adams, of Collin County.

The suit argues that Texas’ $295 million contract tracing program — aimed at tracking down all people exposed to an infected person — violates the first amendment, privacy, due process and equal protection provisions. Such tracking amounts to an illegal, warrantless search, the suit says. While tracing back contacts is supposed to be voluntary, it is enforced through local health departments based on a presumption of guilt for all people in proximity to a sick person, according to the lawsuit. It requires people to turn over names, call in with their temperature readings and assumes a person has COVID-19 unless they can prove otherwise, Woodfill said.

Woodfill said he believes this is the first federal challenge to contact tracing. He hopes it will set the tone for “how we as a government and as a people will deal with diseases that we don’t have a vaccine for yet.”

Yes, of course that’s Jared Woodfill, joined at the hip as ever with Hotze on these things. We had the original lawsuit against Harris County, over the stay-at-home order. That was then followed by the lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay-at-home order, for which there is now an emergency petition before the State Supreme Court. Another lawsuit against Harris County was filed over Judge Hidalgo’s face mask order, a subject that may soon be relevant again. That one too has a motion before the Supreme Court for an emergency ruling. I am not aware of any rulings in any of these lawsuits, but sooner or later something will happen. Abbott’s contact tracing plan is full of problems, and as I’ve said before there are legitimate questions to be raised about Abbott’s various orders during this pandemic. For sure, the Lege should try to clarify matters in 2021. I would just greatly prefer to have these legitimate questions get asked by legitimate people, not con men and grifters. That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately.

All this got me to thinking: Why doesn’t Hotze announce that he’s running for Governor in 2022? He clearly has some strong opinions about the way the state is supposed to be run, and in doing so he has some stark disagreements with Greg Abbott. Just as clearly, he has some support among the wingnut fringe for those differing opinions. It seems unlikely he could win – among other things, Abbott has a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury – but he could force a dialogue on his issues, and very likely could bring some real pressure on Abbott. He’s also the kind of preening egotist who’d think he’s got The People behind him. I’m just idly speculating, and maybe trying to stir up some trouble. I can’t help but think that this is the biggest public example of Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence since Carole Keeton Strayhorn was Rick Perry’s main nemesis. (I’m not counting Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary against Perry in 2010, since she barely showed up for it.) I don’t really think this is where Hotze is going, but if he does do something like this, would you be surprised? At this point, I would not be.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The plan for the runoffs

Early voting for the primary runoffs starts in less than two weeks. Here’s what to expect.

Chris Hollins

Interim Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins is hoping to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor in the chaotic March primary election for July’s runoff balloting through a series of improvements he announced Monday.

Hollins said he would allocate polling machines to locations based on turnout, extend voting hours and improve a website showing wait times at polling places.

“This office will do everything it can to give every Harris County voter an equal say at the ballot box,” Hollins said.

The clerk’s office announced a 23-point plan Monday to ensure the July 14 primary runoff and November general elections are “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”

The runoff features 19 races between both parties, seeking to nominate candidates for seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature, well as such local posts as county commissioner, constables and state district judges. Early voting begins June 29.

[…]

Hollins, who said his team is “learning from the past,” said he has increased the number of voting machines. The clerk’s office also will open more polling sites for the runoff, 57 for early voting and 112 on Election Day.

Historical patterns suggest turnout is likely to drop significantly for next month’s runoff, especially among Democrats, who had a contested presidential primary on the March ballot. In 2016, the last contested presidential primary, Democratic turnout dropped 87 percent between the primary and primary runoff.

Yes, but as we’ve discussed before, context matters. There will be significant dropoff, no doubt about it, but the contested Senate primary runoff suggests that the floor for statewide turnout is higher than usual. Prepare for there to be more people than usual for a primary runoff, that’s my advice. Of course, some higher percentage of that turnout may come from mail ballots.

You can see the Clerk’s S.A.F.E initiatives here. Protecting the poll workers was given a high priority, as it should. The Clerk’s office says they’re doing well in recruiting poll workers for November, which will be the real test. Early voting starts June 29, and you can find all the locations here. Note that some are new, and some have changed, so be sure you check before you head out. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

Plaintiffs move for dismissal of state lawsuit over mail ballots

Not a surprise.

The fight over expanding voting by mail in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be coming to an end in state courts, but a lawsuit continues at the federal level.

Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that closed the door to expanded mail-in voting, the individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations that sued to expand voting by mail based on a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus asked a state appeals court on Tuesday evening to dismiss their case.

[…]

Legal challenges to the state’s voting by mail rules continue in federal courts though a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week extended its order blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel cited in part the proximity of the upcoming July primary runoffs. It’s possible the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after the runoffs.

This was more or less expected after that State Supreme Court ruling, which directly addressed the question of what the state law on “disability” meant in this context. At the federal level there remains the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, neither of which has had a hearing yet, as well as the TDP/LULAC lawsuit for which there is a block of the lower court’s ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. (This Daily Kos elections lawsuit tracker may be useful for you.) If there’s going to be any change in the status quo, it will be for the November election, though at this point I’m dubious even if the age discrimination claims have merit. Ultimately, the sure path forward is winning enough elections to change the state law. We’re talking 2023 at the earliest for that, so in the meantime this is where the fight is. It’s all up to the federal courts now.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course they have voted by mail

It should surprise no one that the three main opponents to an expansion of voting by mail have all voted by mail themselves in past elections.

Three of Texas’ top Republican leaders are vigorously fighting efforts to expand mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, arguing it will lead to increased voter fraud, yet all three have themselves cast absentee ballots at least once in past elections.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — then a state senator — voted by mail in 2007 for a May Houston municipal election and an ensuing runoff, though Harris County records show his first mail-in ballot was rejected because of a signature verification issue. Patrick is a regular voter in both local and state elections and favors casting his ballot during the early voting period. He’s been voting in Montgomery County since 2017.

Though he’s a regular in-person voter in Collin County, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton used the voting by mail option to cast a ballot in a 2011 municipal election, according to county records. In recent elections, he’s opted for voting early.

Travis County election records show Gov. Greg Abbott cast a mail-in ballot in a 1997 special election when he was a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Abbott consistently votes in local and state elections.

Abbott and Patrick and Paxton would no doubt assert that they were taking advantage of a perfectly legal opportunity to use an absentee ballot, and that all those other people are asking for something that the law does not allow. I would say that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, the law as written is hardly clear and lower courts did not agree with that more narrow interpretation. I would also note that one can have a principled disagreement about what the law says without lying and fearmongering about voting by mail, which has the effect of suppressing turnout and delegitimizing the process. (To be fair, Patrick and Paxton have been far more egregious about this than Abbott has, though he’s hardly uttered a peep in dissent of their noxious views.) As with Donald Trump and his current spokesperson, the impression one gets is “it’s fine for me to do this, but lowlifes like you can’t be trusted with it”. None of this had to be this way.

More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

We will have more early voting time in November

That’s good.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday he will extend the early voting period for an unspecified amount of time during the November election as concerns continue to persist around in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott has already doubled the time period for the primary runoff election July 14, calling it necessary so that “election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices.”

In a TV interview Thursday afternoon, Abbott was asked if he believes Texas voters will be able to cast their ballots safely not only this summer but also in the fall.

“We do, and for this reason, and that is … Texas has always had early voting, and what I did for the July time period and what we will do again for the November time period is we will extend the early voting period,” Abbott said in the interview with KCBD in Lubbock. “And what that does — it allows more people to go vote early in settings that are not highly congregated. As a result, you can go vote without having to worry about a whole bunch of people being around you that you could contract COVID-19 from. That makes voting a lot safer [of a] setting than it would otherwise be with the shortened early voting time period.”

See here for the background. I had called on Abbott to do exactly this, though I did not expect that he would. He hasn’t said yet how much he’ll extend early voting – maybe we’ll get a third week, maybe a third and a fourth, who knows – but this is a Good Thing, and I’m glad to see it. Having the state pony up to help counties cover their extra expenses in this weird year, and not being fanatically opposed to letting people with a legitimate fear of COVID exposure vote by mail, would also be nice. But this is something, and credit where it’s due.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Voter, sanitize thyself

WTF?

With voting in the primary runoff election starting next month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas secretary of state on Tuesday issued “minimum recommended health protocols” for elections, including a suggestion that voters bring their own hand sanitizer to the polls and that they “may want to consider” voting curbside if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

In an eight-page document, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs laid out checklists for voters and election workers that range from self-screening for symptoms to increased sanitation of voting equipment — none of which are binding and many of which were already being considered by local election officials planning for the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its recommendations, the state said voters should consider wearing cloth face masks, bringing their own marking devices — like pencils with erasers or styluses — and using curbside voting if they have a cough, fever, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Voters in Texas have long had the option of having a ballot brought to them outside their polling place if “a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

The state instructed local election officials to place markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing and to keep at least 6 feet between voting stations. Election officials should also consider having all employees wear masks, the secretary of state said.

The recommendations are meant to serve as a baseline, and county officials can adopt additional protocols. Early voting for the July primary runoff starts June 29.

Man, this is weak. The main takeaway here is that the state of Texas really, really doesn’t want to do anything to make it safer or easier for anyone to vote. Let’s put aside the hotly-contested question about allowing more voting by mail and consider two fairly simple alternatives the state could do in this regard. One, the state could pay for the extra supplies that voters or county officials if they are willing and able are being encouraged to provide for themselves. A few million bucks from Greg Abbott’s discretionary fund would go a long way towards buying hand sanitizer, pencils, masks and gloves for poll workers, and so forth, not just for the July election but for November as well. Additionally, and speaking of November, Abbott could use his emergency powers – or call a special session if this would be too legally questionable – to extend the early voting period for November to four weeks. That would do a lot to address concerns about long lines and crowds of people crammed inside polling places waiting their turn. He extended the early voting period for July to address this, which I do appreciate. But no, we get this limp mixture of “you might wanna bring some Purell with you, and oh yeah, mark some spots on the floor”. Are you kidding me?

Republican voters should be unhappy about this inability to engage with the actual issue, too. This isn’t hard. And surely I’m not the only one looking at that recommendation to voters that they spend their own money to provide their own risk mitigation and thinking that telling voters there’s a cost to voting they have to pay amounts to a poll tax. If there isn’t a lawsuit filed over this, I’ll be quite surprised. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the state to take this seriously.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.