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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.

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.

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.

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.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

First federal vote by mail lawsuit hearing

One down, two to go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery heard arguments Friday in a federal lawsuit seeking to give all voters the option to vote by mail due to fears of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

[…]

During Friday’s federal court hearing, Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn argued that concerns about coronavirus should not disqualify someone from exercising their right to vote. Doing so discriminates against classes of voters, such as voters under the age of 65.

Requiring people under the age of 65 to vote in person creates a “survival of the fittest election,” Dunn said via videoconference, and an impossible choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, voters will be left in a “twilight zone,” unclear if they can apply for a mail-in ballot or not, Dunn said.

The Texas Democratic Party named Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen as defendants in the suit. Other plaintiffs include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other individual voters Joseph Daniel Cascino, Shandra Marie Sansing, and Brenda Li Garcia.

They are seeking a preliminary injunction for the finding that the current election conditions violate tenets of the First, 14th and 26th amendments as well as some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The suit also requests that the defendants stop issuing threats of criminal or civil sanctions for helping voters vote by mail.

Biery said he could not estimate when he would issue a ruling in the case. “All I can tell you is it will be forthcoming,” he said. “No guarantee as to when.”

Robert Green, an attorney representing Bexar County and Callanen, said the county “is not here to take a position” on the various legal arguments presented by the Democratic Party or by the State. However, Green stated that counties have no mechanism or authority to investigate what “disability” a voter cites in an application for a mail-in ballot.

“A voter who believes that they are eligible … is permitted to indicate that solely by checking a box,” he said. “If a court were to order or if the Secretary of State were to issue guidance that local officials should reject certain disability applications if they’re premised on some COVID-related fear or lack of immunity, it’s not clear at all that local officials would be able to do that because the application does not allow voters” to explain their disability, he said.

Lack of immunity to COVID-19 is a physical condition, Green said. “A voter lacking that immunity is endangered by in-person voting. I think that that’s an inescapable reality.”

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, not long after this hearing came the State Supreme Court ruling that for now at least halted efforts to encourage people to apply for mail ballots. The people who have already asked for them and cited “disability” as the reason will presumably still receive them – as noted, there’s neither a process nor the authorization to check on that. The other two federal lawsuits are not on the calendar yet as far as I know. I have no idea if we’re going to have a clear ruling on this in time for the primary runoff. Of course, the question of what comes after that is even bigger, so this story is just getting underway. Stay tuned.

LULAC joins TDP’s federal mail ballot lawsuit

More plaintiffs, more fun.

A prominent Latino civil rights group is jumping into the fight to expand Texas’ voting-by-mail eligibility, alleging the restriction that limits age eligibility for voting by mail to those 65 and older disproportionately harms Texas Latinos because they tend to be younger in age.

The League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms signed on Tuesday to the Texas Democratic Party’s federal lawsuit against the state raising claims that the state’s absentee voting restriction is unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination against voters based on race.

“All voters will face substantial health risks by voting in person. But the consequences of voting in person will not be equally shared among Texas’ demographic populations,” reads LULAC’s complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Antonio.

LULAC cited census estimates that show nearly two out of every three adults older than 65 in Texas are white, indicating that the pool of voters eligible to request a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in is predominantly white.

“This means that the younger and minority voters, including many of LULAC Plaintiffs’ members, are disproportionately harmed by Defendants’ enforcement of the Eligibility Criteria,” the organization argued. “Nearly a third of Texas’s Latino voters are between the ages of 18-29.”

See here for the background. As noted, there’s a hearing this Friday for this suit. There’s also the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, both in federal court, and the other TDP lawsuit, in state court. Kind of amazing there are this many seemingly viable arguments for allowing greater access to mail ballots, isn’t it? Almost like our state laws are overly restrictive. Doesn’t mean any of these will make it past the Fifth Circuit, but they’re going to have to work hard to shoot these all down.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The TDP motion for a fast ruling in their federal vote by mail lawsuit

I mentioned this in passing in yesterday’s post, so here are some more details.

Updating an ongoing lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday asked a federal judge in San Antonio to issue an order by May 15 requiring state officials to expand vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections.

The motion also asked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to block Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton “from threatening voters with criminal or civil sanctions” if they vote by mail over fears of contracting the coronavirus at polling places.

The fast deadline is required, the petition argued, because county election officials need clarity as they prepare for primary runoff elections and a special election to fill the seat of retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — both set for July 14.

[…]

On April 15, state District Judge Tim Sulak ordered expanded ballot access due to coronavirus concerns, a ruling that Paxton has appealed. That same day, Paxton issued a statement saying that fear of contracting COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse under state law.

“While the state Court has ruled that under age 65 voters can use the disability exemption to vote absentee, the Attorney General has threatened to prosecute those who engage in this activity,” the updated federal lawsuit said.

“Texas’ law discriminates on its face against younger voters by creating two classes of voters: those 65 or older and are able to access absentee ballots and those under 65, who generally cannot,” the lawsuit argued. “When in-person voting becomes physically dangerous, age-based restrictions on mail ballot eligibility become constitutionally unsound.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume the state will file its response shortly. There really is a compressed schedule here, because the more mail ballots that will need to be sent out, the more time election administrators will need to handle the requests. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Here’s the official order in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit

Round One went to the plaintiffs. From there, who knows.

A Texas state district judge on Friday issued an order allowing voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail for as long as the pandemic lasts — an early victory for the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups seeking to expand mail-in voting, though the ruling is almost certain to be quickly appealed by the state.

Judge Tim Sulak’s temporary injunction says the state can’t stop voters from voting by mail based on disability “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and it stops the state from “taking actions” preventing county elections officials from accepting and counting mail-in ballots from those voters.

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

Democrats and voting rights groups, who have sued in both state and federal court, argued the disability clause should cover voters who are worried about showing up to a polling place during a pandemic. But Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has said fear of the coronavirus is not an acceptable excuse to claim disability to vote by mail.

The order was expected after Sulak said during a court hearing earlier this week he was inclined to issue it.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the order. I don’t believe an appeal has been filed or even formally announced yet, but it’s 100% there will be one, and this won’t be settled as a matter of state litigation till the Supreme Court rules. As noted, there is also a federal lawsuit out there, so all sorts of things can happen. Also, so far this ruling just affects the primary runoffs in July. There will be another hearing in August on the merits of the case to determine whether this should be extended to the November election. Assuming that other rulings haven’t made this all moot by then, of course.

In the meantime, here’s another look from Vox’s Ian Millhiser, who had done an earlier analysis that outlined the cruz of the dispute. This article in Slate also provides a useful way of thinking about this case.

The election law in question says a person can only vote by mail if the would-be voter “has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” On one hand, Paxton’s claim that being sick means actually being physically ill is plausible. The rule, he says, is about sick people who can’t get to the polls because they are sick, or who might get sicker if they had to vote in person. It is not about non-sick people afraid of getting sick if they go to the polls.

As the ACLU stated it in its motion in the case, though, it’s arguable that everyone now has a “physical condition” that increases the “likelihood” that going to the polls might “injure[] the voter’s health.” (New Hampshire has interpreted its analogous “physical disability” provision in precisely this way) Paxton’s construction of the statute, meanwhile, also might mean that someone who actually tests positive for COVID-19 but is asymptomatic may not qualify for an absentee ballot, which seems absurd. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser wrote: “Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate.”

This is where Texas’ judges should turn to the so-called “democracy canon,” a method of interpreting statutes that is tailor-made for cases like this one. In his 2009 Stanford Law Review article about the method, University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen offered a case citation that perfectly captures the heart of the democracy canon: “[a]ll statutes tending to limit the citizen in his exercise of [the right of suffrage] should be liberally construed in his favor.” In other words, when there is a “tie” in how to interpret the statute, the tie goes to the voter.

The case Hasen cited—Owens v. State ex rel. Jennett—was, in fact, a Texas Supreme Court case. Indeed, Texas historically adopted a fairly strong version of what Hasen called the democracy canon. In one appeals court case from the 1950s on the very subject of absentee ballots, Sanchez v. Bravo, a Texas court established a “clear statement” rule regarding restrictions on the right to vote. If a state is going to prevent someone from voting, the court ruled, they have to say so in “clear and unmistakable terms.” Otherwise, courts must read the law in a way that promotes “the right of the citizen to cast his ballot and thus participate in the selection of those who control his government.”

Finally, there is a related issue about the good faith of the voters who’ve decided they want to vote absentee by mail. If the Texas Supreme Court eventually comes down on the side of a narrow reading of the law—turning its back on the democracy canon and an older body of the court’s own jurisprudence—this could be made up by voting officials and lower courts generously construing on a case-by-case basis voters’ reasons why they chose to vote absentee. It is here that Paxton’s veiled warning in the letter that those who obtain ballots by “false pretenses” can be prosecuted sounds a sour note. It is one thing to proclaim a general election rule regarding sickness and disability. It is a separate and more ominous thing for the state of Texas to threaten voters who understandably want to have it both ways: to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic and exercise their right to vote.

Again, nothing really matters in this lawsuit except what five or more members of the state Supreme Court say, but it’s good to have a way to make a coherent argument for the plaintiffs. And by the way, if you’d like to see that ambiguous language in the state law replaced by something that unambiguously allows for more people to vote by mail, that starts with electing more Democrats to office, most especially in the Attorney General’s office.

What’s weird in all of this is that voting by mail has long been a Republican asset, though admittedly in this state for a very small number of voters. I agree with Campos, Republican voters themselves like voting by mail. I’m old enough to remember that vote by mail is exempt from the state’s ridiculously strict voter ID law, in large part because the Republicans who passed our voter ID law recognized that vote by mail was their bread and butter. That appears to have been replaced by a larger fear of anything that might make voting easier for the general public, which for sure is what everyone from Trump on down is trumpeting. But be careful what you wish for, because the recent Wisconsin experience suggests that Democrats may be better equipped to overcome barriers to voting than Republicans are, since Democrats by now have so much more experience in having to overcome obstacles. Maybe – I know this is crazy talk, but hear me out – if the Republicans spent a bit more time persuading people to vote for them rather than making it harder for anyone to vote, they might be better off in the end.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TDP files federal lawsuit over expanded vote by mail

Double your venues, (hopefully) double your chances of success.

With primary election runoffs scheduled for July and the November general election on the horizon, the Texas Democratic Party has expanded its ongoing fight for more widespread mail-in balloting to federal court, fearful that a Monday U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Wisconsin presidential primary signals a need to get federal litigation in the pipeline quickly.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, the Texas Democrats argue that holding traditional elections within state and federal safety guidelines attempting to limit spread of the new coronavirus pandemic would impose unconstitutional and illegal burdens on voters unless state law is clarified to expand voting by mail.

[…]

In a recent advisory, the Texas secretary of state’s office signaled that the state’s voting-by-mail qualifications could extend to voters affected by the pandemic but provided no explanation of how eligibility could be expanded so more Texans can qualify for absentee ballots.

In their lawsuit, the Democrats argue the advisory “unhelpfully” gave local election administrators “no material guidance” on who can qualify to vote by mail under the circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

“Left without Court intervention, the state will march toward upcoming elections with no plan in place,” the Democrats wrote in their complaint, in which they allege multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

See here for more on that recent advisory, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. As the story notes, there is already a state lawsuit filed. I have no idea which one is more likely to get a resolution first, nor do I have any idea which one may have better odds of success. The US Supreme Court sure doesn’t care, if Wisconsin is any example. I still think a settlement can happen, but I’d sure like to see the state take a step forward on that.

SOS moves towards increasing vote by mail

How about that?

Texas is opening the door to an expansion of mail-in voting during the coronavirus outbreak, though the state is unlikely to heed calls to have every voter cast ballots by mail to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at polling places.

The state’s director of elections on Thursday sent guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties telling them that voters can ask for mail-in ballots if they are worried that showing up to a polling place could be a danger to their health. The guidance also suggests that counties be more lenient with curbside voting and says counties should consider recruiting and training more poll workers this year.

[…]

The guidance isn’t a mandate. The secretary of state’s office says it can only advise counties on how to work within existing election law. But it offers a green light to county officials to take a lenient approach in approving requests for mail-in ballots.

“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Bay Scoggin, director of Texas Public Interest Research Group, one of dozens of groups that have urged the state to expand mail-in voting as at least one option for this year’s elections. “While we still want a more concrete expansion of vote by mail, this plan gives guidance to counties on a number of important issues.”

Texas is one of the few states that still require voters younger than 65 to have an excuse to cast a ballot by mail. Fewer than 7 percent of Texas voters mailed in ballots in 2018.

The guidance notes that the election code currently includes a “disability” clause that allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.” It suggests counties can get a court order to temporarily expand eligibility for mail-in voting — especially in areas under quarantine.

Advocates say while it appears to allow anyone with concerns about the coronavirus to get a mail-in ballot, the state still needs to be more clear. Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough.

“In the middle of this public health crisis, we must all be working together to keep people safe and healthy, while also keeping our democracy moving forward,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat. “This should include a statewide no-excuse vote-by-mail program that will give every eligible Texan the opportunity to make their voice heard in this year’s electoral process and guarantee their well-being.”

Every Texas Democrat in Congress wrote a letter to Abbott this week urging an expansion of voting by mail, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests shifting that way for 2020 elections.

This was also covered in that Trib story about the May elections being postponed. As noted, there was a lawsuit filed to force this issue, and I have to say, I’m more than a little surprised to see the state take the idea seriously rather than dig in their heels as usual. It isn’t everything that activists have demanded, but it’s a lot, and it’s not clear that “everything” would be possible to do in time for November. If this were the basis of a settlement agreement in that lawsuit, I’d be happy with it. Let’s put a bow on this so we can get down to the practical issues that would need to be addressed to make this much happen.

The May elections will not happen

Not in May, anyway.

Citing the state’s stay-at-home order, the Texas secretary of state is instructing municipalities to delay their May 2 elections.

In an email to local election officials sent Thursday afternoon, the state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, said cities, towns and school boards that hadn’t pushed their upcoming elections to November “must take action to do so immediately” or risk facing a challenge in court.

“If you don’t move your May 2nd election, you are subjecting voters to health risks and potential criminal violations,” Ingram wrote. “Failure to postpone your election will put your election at severe risk for an election contest.”

[…]

Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday telling Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities. In announcing his order, the governor made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment. The order lasts until April 30. Early voting for municipal elections would have started before then.

Although election workers are included under the federal government’s guidance on essential workers, that would not include voters, Ingram said.

Earlier in the week, the Trib had a previous story about a handful of cities, school boards, utility districts, and the like that were still planning on having their May elections, despite the earlier admonition to put them off till November. I can understand the arguments for wanting to proceed as scheduled, especially for elections that would be expected to have miniscule electorates, but really there was no good justification for it. This was the right thing to do.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

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

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

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

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

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

Following fruitless negotiations over how to proceed with the upcoming primary runoff elections, Texas Democrats are looking to the courts to push for an expansion of voting by mail in the state.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court late Friday, the Democrats are asking a judge to declare that a portion of the Texas election code allowing voters to cast a mail-in ballot if they suffer from a disability applies to any voter in Texas “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder” the spread of the new coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters who would seek to vote by mail given the state of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward with respect to the pandemic, numerous voters, including the two individual Plaintiffs herein, seek to avail themselves of the option of mail-in ballots,” the lawsuit reads. “Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party needs to know how state law permits local election officials to handle such ballots cast in the Texas Democratic Party Runoff Primary Election so the [party] can determine how it desires to proceed in selecting nominees who were facing a runoff.”

[…]

Election officials in Texas generally agreed that a traditional election for the runoffs is implausible if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May.

But in conversations with the Texas Democratic Party this week, some local election officials said they opposed moving to universal voting by mail, under which all registered voters or all voters who participated in the March primaries would be automatically sent ballots, without a postponement to build up their capacity to take on that expansion.

The expansion Democrats are seeking would not result in all mail-in ballot election, and voters would still have to formally request mail ballots from their counties.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. It’s basically the argument that we’ve discussed before about the law as written being sufficiently broad – or vague, if you prefer – as to allow anyone who believes they qualify for the disability provision due to health issues, especially in this time of coronavirus, to be able to vote by mail. Obviously, I believe this argument has merit, though I thought it would be more of a stealth application rather than formally litigating the question. There will need to be a quick ruling for this to be relevant to the runoff, so I expect we’ll have an idea of what the courts think shortly. We’ll see.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

Moving the May elections

Another possible method for coping with coronavirus.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a proclamation that will allow municipalities to postpone their upcoming May 2 elections until November.

The move comes after Abbott issued a disaster declaration over the pandemic that paved the way for him to suspend parts of the state’s election code to allow for postponements. Notably, individual municipalities will still have to act to postpone their elections, but Abbott urged them to move them to November.

“I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott said in a statement. “Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort.”

[…]

The May 2 municipal elections are set to feature a litany of local political races from across the state.

Abbott had previously indicated his team was deciphering whether he had the authority to order changes for municipal elections. Unlike state contests, like the upcoming primary runoffs, municipal elections are ordered — and often run — by cities, school districts and other political subdivisions. The proclamation suggests he ultimately concluded he did not have that power to order the postponements himself.

The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees election in the state, sent local election officials an advisory shortly after the proclamation was announced offering guidance for entities choosing to postpone. The advisory indicates the elected officials holding offices that were on the ballot for May will continue to hold their positions until November if an election is postponed.

See here, here, and here for the background. The issue of the regular May elections versus the primary runoffs was discussed in that last post. Abbott has apparently concluded that he can’t order the localities that have elections on May 2 to move them or otherwise change how they conduct them, but he can do this. We’ll see what happens. As I’ve said in previous posts, these are small elections that don’t have their results reported to the Harris County Clerk (for those in Harris County), so I at least have no idea how many of them there are and how many voters may be affected. I do know that moving them to November, no matter what else is going on, will mean that the universe of potential voters for those races will be orders of magnitude larger than if they were to be held in May. It also may mean having these races conducted by the county elections administrators, so that affected voters don’t have to vote twice, potentially at two different locations, which would be a huge mess. Again, without knowing the specifics of the races involved, I can’t offer any speculation on what that might do to their results. There will need to be a lot of thought and work put into this, that’s for sure. Abbott’s proclamation is here, and Patrick Svitek has more.

Abbott addresses vote by mail possibilities

He’s thinking about it.

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged on Tuesday that he has the authority to postpone May 26 runoff elections or conduct them exclusively via mail-in ballots in response to the coronavirus.

“Everything’s on the table,” Abbott told reporters when asked about expanding vote-by-mail.

On Monday, Hearst Newspapers reported that state officials have been kicking around the idea. Currently, Texas allows limited use of vote-by-mail.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said because of how low the turnout is, he thinks Texas could easily do an all-mail election to keep people from having to stand in line to vote.

Abbott, however, is not certain he can order the May 2 municipal elections around the state to make similar changes because those are local elections.

“It may only be the municipalities have the power to make that decision, and so there’s that legal issue that we are making a determination on,” Abbott said. “That said, if I don’t have the legal authority, we may provide suggested guidelines.”

See here and here for the background. The local elections on May 2 are a different breed, and Abbott may be right that it’s not in his authority to order a change in their procedures. Seems like a good question to ask the Attorney General, and hopefully get a quick answer out of him, since time is of the essence. Giving them some guidance on how to proceed would also be a good answer.

Also of interest:

The Texas Civil Rights Project has sent a letter to the Texas Secretary of State arguing that everyone in Texas already qualifies to vote by mail because they have the risk of being sick.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote,” said Beth Stevens, legal director of the nonprofit group’s Voting Rights Program. “The Secretary of State should act quickly within her authority to issue guidance to counties, so they can prepare for the logistics of more mail-in-ballot applications. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but luckily, the Texas Legislature gave us this process in the election code and we can rely on it now.”

We talked about how more people could be voting by mail now if they asked for it. There are concerns, but they can be addressed, especially for a low-turnout May election like the primary runoffs. But again, if we’re going to do this we need to get a concrete proposal on the table as soon as possible so any objections or concerns can be aired and dealt with. There’s definitely some momentum here and that’s good to see, but we need to get this going.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

Texas is not making any moves to delay the May 26 primary runoff as of now, even as other states have opted to postpone elections.
But election officials have had preliminary conversations about the potential of doing vote-by-mail ballots only for the runoffs, which would be a first in Texas history.
“It’s a possible solution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said Monday.

He said the idea has been kicked around and could work because of how low the turnout typically is for runoffs in Texas. As a former elections official, he said he has no doubt Texas counties could get ballots to voters who wanted to vote by mail rather than risk going to large polling sites.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, would not confirm that it is exploring that possibility, only saying a lot of options are on the table.

[…]

Other states have postponed primaries entirely. In Louisiana, election day has been moved from April 4 to June 20. In Georgia, the March 24 primary is now on May 19.

Absentee voting by mail is allowed in Texas for some people but isn’t very popular. In the March 4 primary, just 52,000 of 516,000 voters in Harris County cast ballots by mail.

In order to vote by mail in the May 26 runoff, voters must submit an application by May 15 to their county elections office.

See here for the background. It’s not clear to me how this could be accomplished without a special session of the Legislature, but perhaps Greg Abbott has the authority to order the SOS to come up with a plan for this based on the declared state of emergency. I’ll want to see an explanation of that, but even if it is a special session that is needed, that should be doable. The bigger question, as I discussed in my post, is whether everyone would have to apply for a mail ballot, or whether one would just be mailed to everyone who cast a primary vote. One can reasonably argue for either – I prefer the latter approach, as noted – and one can also point out that either approach has its share of logistical challenges. Which means that if we’re serious about this and not just dicking around, we need to get a proposal on the table and have at it.

One other issue to contend with:

Voting rights advocacy groups have been leery of Texas pushing vote-by-mail too far because its system makes it too easy for voters’ ballots to be thrown out if elections officials decide a signature on a returned ballot doesn’t look right.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has warned that the ballots are not reviewed by experts but instead by everyday eligible voters who just eyeball signatures for irregularities. Those decisions are final and give voters no chance to prove a ballot was properly signed. The group has pushed for Texas to allow voters a chance to contest ballots rejected for a signature match issue.

That’s a very legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed if this moves forward. Plenty of other states do a lot more voting by mail than Texas does, so I’m sure there are ways to handle this, it just needs to be an actual priority and not something left up to individual elections administrators. Again, if we are serious about this, we need to be talking details as soon as possible. We’ll see about that.

The Texas Democratic Party has called for all mail ballots for both the May primary runoffs and the regular May 2 election. I have no idea what is on the ballot on May 2 – as I said in the comments on my earlier post, there are no elections handled by the Harris County Clerk in May of even-numbered years. I’m fine with the concept, but it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The possibility of doing more vote by mail in November is also an entirely separate issue, one for which I’ve got a post in the works. For now, I think the primary runoffs are the main concern.

Dallas County needs a recount

Hoo boy.

Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole discovered her office did not count about 10% of the ballots that voters cast on Super Tuesday.

She is now asking a court to let her conduct a manual recount of the votes, after she discovered 44 thumb drives containing ballots that were not included in the final results.

It’s uncertain which precincts are involved, how many votes are at issue or whether the apparent winners from any races will change.

It is also uncertain if the 44 thumb drives represent 44 individual voting centers or joint centers where votes were cast in both primaries.

Still, the drives represent almost a tenth of the total vote centers open on Super Tuesday, officials told WFAA.

“Of the 44 thumb drives, 16 were not received in a timely manner to the Elections Department and 28 were from voting machines not scheduled to be used but were used by volunteer election officials,” Pippins-Poole said in a statement Saturday evening addressing the blunder.

[…]

Pippins-Poole filed the petition and affidavit in court late Friday, according to county officials.

In the affidavit accompanying the court petition, Pippins-Poole said she only made the discovery while reconciling the books and discovered she did not have enough ballots for everyone who showed up to vote.

She now wants to recount and re-tabulate votes in both the Democratic and Republican primary elections.

“I think that its important that every vote is counted and then if it impacts the election, it impacts the election,” said State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who narrowly made the May runoff election for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. Senate race. “I’m troubled by why 44 boxes had not been counted. We need to find out why that occurred and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

For the March 3 primary elections, Dallas County began using new voting equipment that requires two thumb drives to record the votes, one is the main drive, the second is a back-up.

“This new election equipment records citizen votes electronically, but also creates a paper ballot record of the votes which were cast,” according to the court petition.

“It was initially believed that all of the ballots cast at all of the 454 vote centers had been received back,” wrote Pippins-Poole in an affidavit to the lawsuit. “However, it was later determined that there are ballots from 44 of the precinct scanner and tabulator machines that are unaccounted for. Consequently, I need to perform a paper recount of the ballots from 44 of the precinct scanner and tabulator machines that were not accounted for during the reconciliation process.”

Pippins-Poole said she “consulted with the Texas Secretary of State” after discovering the 44 thumb drives and decided to petition a court to let her “reopen” the central counting process.

“The recount requested would involve taking the paper ballots from the ballot boxes of those 44 scanner and tabulator machines and running the paper ballots through the central counting station tabulator,” the Dallas County petition states. “Further, the Dallas County Elections Administrator asks the Court to set a date and time for the recount to occur so all parties authorized under the Texas Election Code may attend the recount and observe.”

Not great, Bob. At least it was discovered now, before results are to be certified. Looking at the Republican and Democratic election returns, the only race above precinct chair that might be in range of being affected is the Republican primary in HD103, where the winner had 1,064 votes and the loser 930. That’s a safe Dem district, so the stakes are a bit lower if there is an effect, though most likely there won’t be. I do hope that in addition to the recount, Dallas County Elections Administrator Pippins-Poole does a thorough and transparent investigation of how this happened and why. How come some of the thumb drives were not returned in a timely manner, why did some machines that weren’t intended to be used get used anyway, and how is it that no one noticed either of those things on Election Day, when they could have figured it out and gotten the count right the first time? Stuff happens, but the process needs to be robust enough to handle it when it does. That’s as important as getting the count right. The DMN and the Trib have more.

Chron overview of Tax Assessor race

I wasn’t expecting an interesting race here, at least not going into the filing season, but we have one.

Ann Harris Bennett

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett is familiar with elections, appearing on the ballot five times in the last six election cycles and overseeing the office responsible for the voter rolls in Texas’ largest county.

She finds herself in new territory this year, however, with a feisty Democratic primary opponent — former Houston city councilwoman and HISD trustee Jolanda Jones — who is forcing Bennett to defend her record as an incumbent for the first time.

After unseating Republican Mike Sullivan in 2016, Bennett assumed elected office for the first time, taking control of the Harris County office responsible for overseeing billions of dollars in property tax collections and serving as voter registrar. The office also processes millions of annual vehicle registrations and title transfers.

As early voting begins, Bennett is battling for a second term against Jones and frequent local candidate Jack Terence. Though she has endured a few choppy moments during her first three-plus years, she argues that her voter registration outreach efforts and the creation of educational “property tax workshops” are among the reasons she deserves another term.

[…]

Jones, a criminal defense lawyer, said Bennett has missed opportunities to register more voters in Harris County, where the share of eligible voters who are registered to vote is below the state average and far lower than some other large counties.

She said she would make aggressive efforts to register voters, including former felons and high school students, and would have Harris County buy into the “National Change of Address” database, which helps voter registrars keep track of registered voters when they move to new addresses.

Jones argued that Harris County’s voter registration has lagged behind that of other Texas counties that use the database, though Bennett has said her office already uses it to find residents in “suspense” status. Bennett said her office has done “everything that we could possibly do to do outreach,” including partnering with nonprofit groups and holding some 200 trainings for deputy voter registrars.

As a reminder, my interview with Ann Harris Bennett is here, and my interview with Jolanda Jones is here. They’re worth listening to if you haven’t yet. Bennett has had a fairly placid first term, with that SOS purge attempt being the main drama. She’s not a visionary, but she has gotten things done. Jones is smart and has bold ideas that she would aggressively fight for, but she had a tumultuous tenure on City Council and hasn’t been an administrator. Which path do you want to take?

We should get full delegate results on Primary Day

Good.

Texas counties have started seeing updates to the state’s election reporting system that will allow them to break out the vote totals needed to determine how many delegates are won by presidential contenders on Super Tuesday. The refinements to the portal used by the state’s 254 counties to report results come after Texas Democrats raised the prospect of a delay in calculating delegates.

A majority of the Democratic Party’s 228 pledged delegates will be apportioned based on how the candidates do in each state Senate district. The election system update will allow local officials to report returns broken out at the district level on election night, so party officials can calculate delegate totals for the myriad Democratic hopefuls. Election day is March 3; early voting begins Feb. 18.

[…]

State officials refuted Democrats’ claims that the data needed to calculate that delegate distribution wouldn’t be available on election night and said the data would be “reported in the same fashion” as it was in the 2016 presidential primaries, when local officials used a different reporting system.

But until last week, the state’s revamped reporting system did not allow local election officials to log that data at the state Senate district level.

In a Thursday email to county election officials obtained by The Texas Tribune, an election official with the Texas secretary of state’s office informed counties that an update to the reporting system that would address that issue would be added “in the next few days.”

Several county officials confirmed to the Tribune on Tuesday that the system has since been updated. The secretary of state’s office offered no comment on the update.

See here for the background. I don’t know if the complaints from the TDP forced this issue to be resolved, or if it was always on track but the SOS just wasn’t being forthcoming about it. Either way, as long as it’s been resolved, it’s good.

Will we get full Presidential primary results from Texas on primary night?

Maybe.

As their counterparts in Iowa reel from a disastrously slow election returns process, Texas Democrats raised the prospect Wednesday that a change in the way Texas reports election results could delay the final tally of delegates won by presidential hopefuls in the upcoming March 3 primary past election night.

Officials with the Texas Democratic Party said they were recently told by the Texas Secretary of State’s office that it will not be able to provide on election night the numbers needed to allocate a majority of the 228 delegates up for grabs in the state on Super Tuesday. In a Jan. 23 meeting, the Democrats said, top state election officials cited limitations to their revamped reporting system, which is used to compile returns from the state’s 254 counties.

“They basically said that’s not built out yet,” said Glen Maxey, the special projects director for the Texas Democratic Party who attended the meeting with state officials.

Late Wednesday, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, which initially had not responded to The Texas Tribune’s questions about the issue, contested that characterization, saying that “any allegations that delegate allocations will not be reported on election night are categorically false.”

At issue are 149 delegates that will be won by Democratic presidential candidates through a complex formula that divvies up those delegates based on the distribution of votes in each of Texas’ 31 state Senate districts. Maxey said he and other officials were told the state initially will collect election returns at the county level but not at the senatorial district or precinct level, which are needed to calculate how many delegates each candidate picks up. Party officials were told those more detailed numbers would be made available “the next day or so,” Maxey said.

In an email, agency spokesman Stephen Chang said the secretary of state’s office does plan to collect and publicly report votes for president at the Senate district level “in the same fashion” as previous primaries.

“In previous primaries, including the 2016 primary election, delegate allocations for both of Texas’ major parties on election night have been approximate allocations based on data self-reported by the counties,” Chang said. “The delegate allocations will be reported in the same fashion for the March 3rd primary election.”

An earlier version of the story did not yet have the response from the SOS office, so the answer to the question was looking like No. Part of the reason for this is that those delegates are doled out by Senate district, according to a formula that you can learn more about at the links in the story. Senate districts are of course all gerrymandered up, with many of them spanning multiple counties, so you can’t calculate the official delegate count until you have complete counts from all those counties. That could certainly make for a late night, but a reasonable estimate ought to be doable in the evening. If things are close, the allocations could be muddled, and there may not be a clear winner of the most delegates. In theory at least, we’ll have something. Hope for the best but be prepared for a late night. Still gotta be better than Iowa, right?

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Filing report update

We’re a week out from the official filing deadline for the 2020 primaries. There’s still a lot of known candidates who haven’t filed yet, but I expect there will be a mad flurry of activity this week, as is usually the case. Don’t be surprised if we hear of an out-of-the-blue retirement or two, as that is known to happen at this time as well. I’m going to take a quick look at where we stand now, and will provide other reports as needed before the deadline on Monday. My sources for this are as follows:

The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.
The Secretary of State Candidate Information page, which is quite handy and reasonably up to date.
Texas Judges, whose provenance is unknown to me, but they have the most information I’ve found about candidates for statewide and Courts of Appeals judicial races.
Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source – I may be too cheap to subscribe, but the free info he includes is always worth noting.

SBOE

We have a third Democrat in the race for SBOE6, Kimberly McLeod. She is Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at HCDE and a former professor at TSU. She joins former HCDE Board member Debra Kerner (who has filed) and teacher Michelle Palmer (who had not yet filed, at least according to the SOS, as of this weekend).

We have a filing for SBOE5, the most-flippable of the SBOE districts up for election this year, Letti Bresnahan. Google tells me that a person by this name was a Trustee at San Antonio’s Northside ISD (she is not on the Board now). She was elected in 2008, narrowly re-elected in 2012, and I guess didn’t run in 2016; the Bexar County Elections report for May 2016 doesn’t list the NEISD Position 6 race, so who knows what happened. In 2015, she voted to keep the name of San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High school; it was subsequently changed to Legacy of Education Excellence (LEE) High School in 2017, by which time as far as I can tell she was no longer on the Board. That’s a whole lot more words than I intended to write about her or this race – and mind you, I can’t say for sure this is the same Letti (Leticia) Bresnahan. I noted this because I’ve been keeping an eye on this race – the district was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was the bluest of the Republican-held SBOE districts in 2018, and the incumbent is a wingnut. So I was gonna write something when a Dem filed, I just didn’t expect it to be this.

State Senate

Someone named Richard Andrews has filed as a Democrat against Sen. Borris Miles. The Svitek spreadsheet has him as a General Election opponent, but his website clearly says “Democrat”, and the SOS has him as a Democrat. He’s a doctor, and that’s all I know about him.

State House

Current SBOE member Lawrence Allen, Jr, who is the son of State Rep. Alma Allen, has filed in the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD26. It’s one of the nine GOP-held districts that Beto won in 2018. Rish Oberoi, Suleman Lalani, and 2018 candidate Sarah DeMerchant have also filed.

Travis Boldt has filed in HD29, in Brazoria County. That was one of two near-miss districts (Beto got 47.0%) in which no Dem was on the ballot in 2018; HD32, which does not yet have a candidate filed, was the other.

Sandra Moore, who lost in the 2018 Dem primary to Marty Schexnayder, has filed to run again in HD133.

Ashton Woods has changed the name of his Facebook page to indicate he plans to run in the primary for HD146, currently held by second-term Rep. Shawn Thierry. He has not filed as of this writing.

So far, no one else has filed to run in the primary for HD148, where Anna Eastman is in the runoff for the special election, and has made her filing for 2020.

First Court of Appeals

I hadn’t gotten into the Courts of Appeals in my previous discussions, but especially after the sweep of these races by Dems in 2018 (and not just on this court), they will surely be of interest to multiple candidates.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy, who has officially filed, and Dinesh Singhal are in the race for Place 3 against incumbent Russell Loyd, who was elected in 2014. The Texas Judges website also lists Keith F. Houston as a candidate, but he appears to have decided not to run.

Amparo Guerra and Tim Hootman have both filed for Place 5, which had been held by the now-resigned Laura Carter Higley. There are three Republicans running so far, and there may be another if Greg Abbott appoints someone to fill the still-vacant seat prior to the filing deadline.

14th Court of Appeals

Jane Robinson is the (so far, at least) lone Democrat running for Chief Justice. I saw her at the HCDP Friendsgiving last month but did not have the chance to walk up and say Hi. The position is held by Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who is not running for re-election. Justice Tracy Christopher, who holds Place 9, is running for Chief Justice. She was last elected in 2016, so she would not otherwise be on the ballot. My assumption is that if she wins, she will move over from Place 9, which will make Place 9 vacant, and Abbott will appoint someone who would then run in Christopher’s spot in 2022. If she loses, she’ll remain in her spot and run for re-election (or not, as she sees fit) in 2022.

Wally Kronzer, who has filed, and Cheri Thomas are running for Place 7. Kronzer ran for Place 5 on this court in 2010. Ken Wise, in his first term, is the incumbent.

District courts

I don’t see any primary challengers yet for incumbent Democratic district court judges. I have heard someone is circulating petitions to challenge Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, which I think we can all understand. I’m not in a position to say anything more than that as yet.

County offices

Audia Jones has officially filed for Harris County DA. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have both filed for County Attorney. Michael Moore has filed for County Commissioner in Precinct 3; Kristi Thibaut and Diana Alexander both announced their filings on Facebook over the weekend, but the SOS has not caught up to those filings yet. Bill McLeod, of accidental resignation fame, has filed to win his old seat on County Civil Court at Law #4 back. Incumbent Judge Lesley Briones has not yet filed. We will have a contested primary for at least one of the two HCDE at large positions, as Erica Davis has filed in Position 5; here’s her appointment of treasurer. Andrea Duhon, who had run for a different HCDE position in 2018, has already filed an appointment of treasurer for this race. David Brown is running for the other spot, Position 7, and as far as I know has no Dem opponent as yet.

Now you know what I know. We’ll all know a lot more in a week’s time.

Second mobile voting locations lawsuit filed

Same claims, different plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. It is led by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Texas College Democrats.

“We are here to tear down an obstacle to the right to vote,” Mike Siegel, who is representing Blodgett, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is running for Congress against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul, said the law “suppresses the vote of young people, of seniors, of people with disabilities” and people without access to transportation.

Blodgett, who is 96, said he has almost never missed an election – that is until HB 1888 went into effect. Because of the law, the mobile polling site at Westminster, the senior living community he lives in, was forced to close. Blodgett said he has relied on that polling location and was unable to vote because he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t use public transportation.

“I would have had to climb on this bus and go over from the house to the library and vote because we didn’t have the facility or the voting machines there at Westminster,” he said.

When asked, Blodgett said he thinks Republicans in the Legislature passed the law for political reasons.

“I think they did it to suppress the Democratic vote,” he said.

[…]

According to the lawsuit, many young voters were unable to vote in 2019 because they lacked access to transportation.

“For example, at three different college campuses in Austin where there are TYD constituents — Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College — mobile voting locations that had been available and used by TYD voters in the 2018 elections were no longer available for use in the November 2019 election,” plaintiffs say in the lawsuit.

See here for more on the other lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit and other information can be found here. As I said before, I agree with the motivation for HB1888 and I agree with the goals of these lawsuits, but I have little to no faith that the federal judiciary, at least once you get past the district courts, will have any sympathy. And to be honest, in reading this story, I can see what the likely defense strategy will be. Mr. Blodgett doesn’t need to worry about where any voting location is, because he is eligible to vote by mail, and if he had requested a mail ballot he would not have had this problem. As for the college students, Travis County isn’t barred from having early voting locations on those campuses. They just have to keep them open throughout the early voting period. Which costs more, sure, but they could choose to budget the funds for it. Whether any of that is actually responsive to the complaints is beside the point, because I can totally see the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS buying it. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong. The Texas Signal has more.

The County Clerk’s plan for the runoff

Things should be back to normal, and those of us who have to know the final results before we go to bed will get a little more sleep.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday said poll workers will drive electronic ballot boxes to the downtown counting center directly in hopes of speeding up vote counting during next month’s runoff elections.

The move comes a week after the clerk’s office was unable to fully report unofficial returns from the Nov. 5 elections until after 6 a.m. the next day.

Instead of waiting for constable deputies to pick up electronic ballot boxes from 10 sites around the county, Trautman told Commissioners Court that election judges will drive the boxes from roughly 300 voting centers to a central counting location. That represents a step back in how the county has counted and reported results on election night.

In recent elections, the office under former County Clerk Stan Stanart, used four relay sites to transmit results to the central counting center via phone line and modem.

Trautman’s plan was to use 10 such relay sites and transmit the results via the county’s intranet system. Trautman had used the same plan in the May elections and the Harris County Attorney’s office had concluded it was permitted by the Texas Election Code.

She was forced to change the plan, however, after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said it would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet.

See here for the background. The expectation is that we’ll get results more or less as we’ve seen them before, usually about 80% of precincts by midnight. I find all this a bit annoying since there was nothing inherently insecure about the electronic transfer plan they had in place, and used in May. As we know, the Secretary of State had no complaints when Stan Stanart was transmitting results via modem, which isn’t as secure as a VPN. Clearly, we need to add this to the list of Laws We Need To Change When Democrats Are Finally In Control, because there’s no incentive for Republicans to help out the big Democratic counties. Anyway, expect 75% less whining on Twitter on December 14, at least related to election night returns. Assuming we do get back to normal, people will forget about this.