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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.

You really have to plan for every election

Whether or not they actually happen.

Judge Michael Keasler

For months, Democrats Mark Watson and Mike Snipes have been running 2020 campaigns for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 6. They’ve raised money, filed official paperwork, gathered signatures, traveled to far corners of the state, devoured East Texas delicacies, created Facebook pages, won endorsements, launched websites and given interviews with journalists.

There’s just one problem: There is probably not going to be an election.

The current occupant of that seat, Republican Judge Michael Keasler, is 77, and according to the state’s mandatory retirement law for judges, he must finish his decades of service on the state’s highest criminal court by the end of next year at the latest. State law permits him to finish four years of the six-year term he was elected to in 2016.

According to the Texas Constitution, Keasler’s seat will become vacant at the end of next December, and Gov. Greg Abbott is empowered to fill judicial vacancies. But the little-known and rarely relevant law seems to have led to some confusion: Would Keasler’s seat be filled in 2021 by the governor, or in 2020 by the voters?

If the Democrats were confused, they certainly weren’t the only ones.

In August, when an official from the state Democratic Party emailed state elections administrators to ask whether there would be a race, a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office reported that there would.

“I figured it out,” wrote Christina Adkins in an Aug. 15 email obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Judge Keasler is subject to mandatory retirement so his position is on the ballot in 2020.”

The race was included on the state’s list of offices up for election in 2020, posted earlier this year, and remained there as recently as Wednesday morning. Later that day, a Texas Tribune journalist emailed the agency to ask whether the seat would be up in 2020. As of Thursday, it was no longer listed on the state’s website.

A spokesman for the agency said Friday that “there is no vacancy until December 31, 2020, and the office is not already on the ballot.”

The story includes a before-and-after screenshot from the SOS website, which one day did list CCA6 as a 2020 race and then the next day did not. At this point, I’d have to say that barring anything unexpected this race will next be on the 2022 ballot as currently scheduled. At least Watson and Snipes will be ready to hit the ground running when that time comes around.

So what happened with the election returns?

The County Clerk puts the blame on the Secretary of State.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said a last-minute directive from the secretary of state caused significant delays in reporting election results on Tuesday evening.

Trautman said an Oct. 23 election advisory, issued after early voting had begun, required the county to change its counting process. The clerk’s office had originally planned to tally results at 10 sites spread across Harris County, and report them to a central headquarters via a secure intranet connection.

The state advisory, Trautman said, forced the county to abandon that plan and instead count results from each of the 757 voting centers at the clerk’s downtown Houston office.

“Our office is as frustrated as everyone else because of the state’s decision,” Trautman said in an email late Tuesday evening.

[…]

This was the highest-turnout election to date in which Harris County used its new countywide voting system, where residents can visit any polling station on Election Day, instead of an assigned precinct.

Voting appeared to go smoothly across the county on Tuesday, with the exception of some voters receiving incorrect ballots at three polling stations. The clerk’s office said election workers were to blame for the errors.

I will engage this argument, but before I do let’s keep something in mind: The vast, overwhelming majority – like, 99% plus – of Harris County voters had no idea any of this was happening, and if they did know they wouldn’t have cared much. If they watched any election coverage Tuesday night, when they went to bed they knew Mayor Turner and Tony Buzbee were headed for a runoff, they knew the Metro referendum was going to pass, and they knew who was winning in their Council and HISD districts. Only a handful of people – reporters, candidates and campaign staffers, and some diehard nerds, a group that certainly includes me – cared that there wasn’t more than that. We’re talking a few dozen people on Twitter, max. Put the pain and suffering of this group of very special interests – again, a group that includes me; I was up till 2 AM on Election Night, obsessively hitting Refresh on harrisvotes.com like all those other chumps – up against the fact that no one in this higher-turnout-than-expected election complained about long lines or not being able to vote at all because they were at the wrong location, and tell me which matters more. Stan Stanart was bad at his job not just because he had a lousy track record of administering elections, but because he was an active impediment to engaging voters and encouraging participation. We’re way better off without him no matter what time he might have had returns up.

So that’s Diane Trautman’s explanation, and it may well be fully fair and accurate, but it’s all we got from that story. The Trib adds to what we know.

In past elections, results from individual precincts where taken to several drop-off locations around the county, which fed the tallies to the central office. This time, however, the electronic ballot cards with vote counts from individual precincts had to be driven from polling sites — some of them nearly 40 minutes away; some still running an hour after polls closed — into downtown Houston for tallying to begin. Just a quarter of returns had been reported right before midnight. A complete set didn’t come in until nearly 7 a.m. Wednesday.

“This was a painstakingly manual process that amounted to only one person processing [results] cards at a time where we could have had one person at each of the 10 drop off locations submitting electronically with our original plan,” Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk, said in an email Wednesday morning. “The contingency plan we were forced to use was only meant to be used in case of natural disaster or power outage.”

The county switched to the more cumbersome process after an election advisory issued by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office days into the early voting period forced it to ditch its usual practice of sending returns to “rally stations” throughout the county to be downloaded.

Harris County had used a similar system for years, plugging memory cards, known as “mobile ballot boxes,” into specific readers at the rally stations and transmitting the vote tallies to a central office through a secure phone line, according to county officials. As it had in the May municipal election, the county was planning to use a secure encrypted internal network this time around.

But citing security worries, the secretary of state’s advisory required the county to make copies of those memory cards if it wanted to transmit the data over encrypted lines. The originals could be processed directly at the main office.

Though the advisory was issued on Oct. 23, election officials in Harris and other counties said they weren’t made aware of it until several days later. By then, county officials said, it was too late for the county to purchase the equipment needed to make copies.

“We could’ve done that if there had been more than 13 days warning,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “It was just too short a period of time to get from point A to point B and pull this off in the way we intended to do it.”

Instead, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. The effort was further delayed when more than half of the county’s 757 polling places were still running at 8 p.m. as voters who were in line when polls closed finished casting their ballots.

In the aftermath of the Election Day mayhem, Harris County officials said they plan to get technology in place to resume using “rally stations” in the next election. They wonder why the secretary of state’s decided this year to object to a process long in place.

Ray says Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, told county attorneys during a conference call this week that Harris County’s procedures have actually been out of compliance with state law for a decade. Ray said state officials told him and other lawyers on the call that the secretary of state’s office was “compelled to issue” its advisory ahead of Tuesday’s election after facing external pressure from the Harris County GOP.

That tells us a lot, and the complaint from the Harris County GOP shows there was a political element to this. I mean, if this practice had been standard while Stan Stanart was Clerk, then what other reason is there for pushing a complaint now that he’s not except to make the new Clerk look bad? We still don’t have an official statement from the SOS, so there may well be more to this, but what we know now adds a whole other layer on top of this.

As to what the Clerk was doing, it sure sounds like they were planning to use a VPN connection to transmit the data. Encrypted VPNs are standard practice in enterprise security, and on its face should have been perfectly acceptable for use here. (It’s possible that the relevant state law that apparently forbade this is outdated, which may also explain why there had been a laissez-faire attitude towards it in the past.) From a practical perspective, this sounds fine, but the fact that it was not compliant means it was a risk, and we see what happened as a result.

Maybe they’re all still asleep, but I didn’t see any response to this story from the Twitter complainers about it when it came out on Wednesday afternoon. We still need to know more – what the SOS was thinking, why there was a delay in the Harris County Clerk getting this advisory, what the substance was of that GOP complaint, what other counties were in the same boat and how they handled it, etc etc etc – and so we need Commissioners Court to do a full and transparent interrogation of what happened, why it happened, and what we will do to make sure that the next elections – not just the December runoff but the massively larger 2020 primaries and general – don’t suffer from the same problems. Let the Commissioners and Judge Hidalgo ask Trautman and her staff all the questions, and don’t stop till everyone has the answers they’re seeking. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The voting centers, as places to actually vote, worked great. The same bitchy Twitter conversation that moaned about the non-existent returns also credited them with maybe increasing turnout. Remember how many provisional ballots used to be cast in these elections, which was in part due to people voting at the wrong location? We won’t have any of that this time, and that’s a very big deal. But no one foresaw this possibility, and that failure led to the massive delays we experienced, which completely overwhelmed those positives. We need answers to all the remaining questions, and we need a more thorough plan for the next time, because a second performance like this one just cannot happen.

UPDATE: One more thing:

Accountability matters, and so far at least only party in this drama has been accountable.

UPDATE: The SOS finally speaks.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, directed a reporter to an agency spokesman and hung up.

Ingram later shared an email he sent Wednesday evening to Houston Democratic State Sen. Carol Alvarado, in which he said Harris County ignored state law that prohibits counties from connecting voting systems to external networks such as an intranet. Alvarado on Monday asked for clarification of the election advisory.

“The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process,” Ingram wrote. He also told Alvarado he had explained the state’s rules about vote counting systems to a Harris County Clerk’s representative on Oct. 2.

I would question the “risky” assertion. The legality is a separate matter, though enforcement has seemingly been inconsistent. There are still a lot of questions to be answered here.

2019 election results: Houston and Metro

Unfortunately, we have to start with this:

Results of Tuesday’s election could take until 2 a.m. Wednesday after the Texas Secretary of State issued a new regulation that upended plans by the Harris County Clerk’s Office to speed vote counting.

The first tubs containing electronic ballot cards from across Harris County arrived at central count just before 9:30 p.m., where election judges and poll watchers waited to see the vote count in action.

Dr. Diane Trautman said she had hoped to have votes come in from 10 countywide drop-off locations, fed in through a secured intranet site, leading to faster results on election night.

Instead, Secretary Ruth R. Hughs ordered on Oct. 23 that law enforcement officers would instead escort the ballot box memory cards from each of the 757 polling sites to the central counting station.

That change, made nearly two weeks before Election Day, led to a major delay that left voters wondering for hours how races up and down ballot would turn out.

Early election results trickled in shortly after 7 p.m., but remained virtually unchanged for hours Tuesday.

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about that order. I don’t know what was behind it, but it sure did gum things up. In the end, final results were not available till quite late, with no more partial results after midnight because producing those was slowing down the input process. Here’s the later statement on when results would be expected. Suffice to say, this was a mess, and no one is happy about it all. Expect there to be an extended fight between the County Clerk and SOS offices.

Anyway. I’m still groggy from a late night, so I’m going to hit the highlights, and we’ll get final results later. Here we go.

Mayor: Turner leads, is close to a majority.

Mayor Sylvester Turner held a wide lead over Tony Buzbee in limited early returns late Tuesday and was within striking distance of an outright re-election win, though it was unclear at press time if he would secure enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Buzbee, a millionaire trial lawyer, jumped out to an early second-place lead that he appeared likely to retain over Bill King, an attorney and businessman who narrowly lost a 2015 runoff to Turner but struggled this time to compete financially with Buzbee, his main rival for conservative votes.

With a small share of Election Day precincts reporting, Turner remained a shade under the majority vote share he would need to avoid a December runoff against Buzbee.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, who competed with Turner for the support of Democratic and black voters, trailed in fourth place, while former councilwoman Sue Lovell was further behind in fifth. Seven other candidates combined for the remaining share of the vote.

Adding in the Fort Bend results, and we get the following:


Turner     63,359  47.28%
Buzbee     39,361  29.37%
King       17,878  13.34%
Boykins     7,848   5.86%
Lovell      1,433   1.07%
The Rest    4,121   3.08%

Three things to think about: One, Turner has at this point more votes than Buzbee and King combined, so if we do go to a runoff that’s not a bad position to start with. Two, the Election Day results reported so far came mostly from Districts A, C, E, and G, so they would be more favorable to Buzbee and King than the city as a whole. And three, the election polling was pretty accurate, especially at pegging the support levels for Boykins and Lovell.

Oh, and a fourth thing: Tony Buzbee’s drunken Election Night speech. Yowza.

Controller: Incumbent Chris Brown leads

It’s Brown 62,297 and Sanchez 54,864 adding in Fort Bend, and again with mostly Republican votes from yesterday (Sanchez led the Election Day tally by about 1,700 votes). Barring a big surprise, Brown has won.

City Council: Most incumbents have big leads, and there’s gonna be a lot of runoffs. To sum up:

District A: Amy Peck has 44.3%, George Zoes 16.8%
District B: Tarsha Jackson 21.0%, Renee Jefferson Smith 15.1%, Cynthia Bailey 13.7%, Alvin Byrd 10.7%
District C: Abbie Kamin 30.8%, Shelley Kennedy 15.8%, Greg Meyers 14.4%, Mary Jane Smith 14.0%
District D: Carolyn Evans-Shabazz 19.0%, Carla Brailey 12.3%, Brad Jordan 11.9%, Rashad Cave 11.4%, Jerome Provost 10.4%, Andrew Burks 10.3%
District E: Dave Martin easily wins
District F: Tiffany Thomas 39%, Van Huynh 24%, Richard Nguyen 18%
District G: Greg Travis easily wins
District H: Karla Cisneros 38.9%, Isabel Longoria 27.5%, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla 24.0%
District I: Robert Gallegos easily wins
District J: Edward Pollard 32.4%, Sandra Rodriguez 26.4%, Barry Curtis 19.7%
District K: MArtha Castex-Tatum easily wins

At Large #1: Mike Knox 38.1%, Raj Salhotra 21.1%, Yolanda Navarro Flores 16.3%, Georgia Provost 14.7%
At Large #2: Davis Robinson 38.9%, Willie Davis 28.8%, Emily DeToto 18.8%
At Large #3: Michael Kubosh 50.8%, Janaeya Carmouche 20.6%
At Large #4: Anthony Dolcefino 22.9%, Letitia Plummer 16.4%, Nick Hellyar 12.8%, Ericka McCrutcheon 11.3%, Bill Baldwin 10.5%
At Large #5: Sallie Alcorn 23.2%, Eric Dick 22.0%, no one else above 10

Some of the runoff positions are still very much up in the air. Michael Kubosh may or may not win outright – he was only at 46% on Election Day. Name recognition worth a lot (Dolcefino, Dick) but not everything (both Provosts, Burks). Not much else to say but stay tuned.

HISD: Davila and Lira are going to lose

Dani Hernandez leads Sergio Lira 62-38, Judith Cruz leads Diana Davila 64-36. Kathy Blueford Daniels is close to fifty percent in II but will likely be in a runoff with John Curtis Gibbs. Patricia Allen, Reagan Flowers, and Matt Barnes in that order are in a tight battle in IV.

HCC: No story link on the Chron front page. Monica Flores Richart leads the execrable Dave Wilson 47-34 in HCC1, Rhonda Skillern-Jones leads with 45% in HCC2 with Kathy Lynch-Gunter at 26%, and Cynthia Lenton-Gary won HCC7 unopposed.

Metro: Headed to easy passage, with about 68% so far.

That’s all I got for now. Come back later for more.

The need for voter registration never ends

A small step back, but I expect a big step forward next year.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Democrats in Texas see registering new voters as crucial to winning statewide elections in 2020, but the number of registered voters in Harris County, the state’s largest, has declined since last year.

Harris County’s voter roll has shrunk by 4,146 voters since Election Day in November 2018, when Democrats swept every countywide and judicial post.

The deadline to register for next month’s municipal elections is Monday.

Two of the state’s five largest counties this week reported fewer registered voters than 11 months ago. Dallas County lost 19,400, while Bexar County increased by 7,554. Tarrant County gained 1,406 voters and Travis County added 13,454. Texas as a whole added just more than 30,000 voters between November 2018 and September, according to the most recent tally by the secretary of state.

Voter registration officials in Dallas and Bexar counties said voter rolls typically dip after general elections in even-numbered years. They said that period is when counties remove inactive voters, who have not participated in two consecutive federal elections nor responded to a letter from the voter registrar, from the rolls. The number of registered voters usually rebounds as new voters submit applications, they said.

“That’s why you see numbers fluctuate,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jackie Callanen said. “We may purge 40,000.”

[…]

Harris County removed 127,852 voters from the roll between November 2018 and August, according to a cancellation list published by the secretary of state. Bennett’s office did not respond to a request to disclose how many voters have registered in the county since this past November.

Bennett shared a slideshow presentation with the Chronicle that noted her office had signed up a record 4,100 volunteer deputy voter registrars this year and has held registration drives at local high schools and colleges.

The Harris County voter roll has grown in each annual November election since 2012, according to election reports published by the Harris County Clerk. The last year-over-year decrease was in 2011, when there were 48,000 fewer voter than the previous year.

Here are the yearly totals since 2012, which marks the beginning of the modern registration expansion period:


Year   Registered
=================
2012    1,942,566
2013    1,967,881
2014    2,044,361
2015    2,054,717
2016    2,182,980
2017    2,233,533
2018    2,307,654

The big gains are in the even years, but even this year there’s been a lot of activity. If 128K people were removed but the rolls only dipped by 4K, that’s a lot of new and renewed registrations. People do move and they do die, it’s just that now we have a chief voter registrar who’s interested in building things up rather than holding them down. You want to do your part, sign up to be a volunteer deputy voter registrar and get us on the road to 2.5 million for 2020.

Voting centers everywhere

In Dallas:

Starting in November, problems like Mr. Voter’s, at least in Dallas County, will be a thing of the past. Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office officially gave the county permission to participate in the countywide voting program the state allows its most populous counties to opt into. That means that whenever you vote, whether it’s early or on Election Day, you can vote at whatever polling place you choose, as long as you’re both registered to vote in Dallas County and physically in Dallas County.

County commissioners voted to ask the state to get in on the program this spring, after county staff said participation would streamline the voting process, potentially increase voter turnout and decrease the number of voters who cast provisional ballots.

“It is time to come into the 21st century and have an election system that actually works,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said in March. “The main point about vote centers is that we have people, over 3,000 people, that wanted to vote during the last election and they were not able to do it. Voting centers bring that to the table. It’s time to make sure that anyone who wants to vote is able to go and vote in the right place without any problems.”

[…]

In order to participate in countywide voting this November, Dallas County had to upgrade its voter check-in system, something you may have noticed if you’re one of the literally hundreds of people who voted in May or June’s municipal elections. Those looking to cast ballots now check in on a cloud-connected tablet that has service from two carriers, in case one is on the fritz.

November’s state constitutional amendment election is essentially a dry run. If everything comes off without a hitch, and Dallas County sends a successful report to the state, the county will be able to offer countywide polling places during all elections moving forward.

In San Antonio:

The Secretary of State approved Bexar County’s adoption of the vote center model Friday for the upcoming November election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners Tuesday.

The November election will serve as the “soft rollout” for the vote center model, Callanen said. Vote centers allow voters to cast ballots at any location in Bexar County on Election Day. The county previously used the precinct model, under which voters were required to cast ballots at their specific precincts on election day.

“When we do publication [of voting locations], we’ll have Vote Center 1, VC 2, VC 3, and addresses listed,” Callanen said. “No longer are we precinct-driven.”

Callanen said she expected people to get used to the new model after a complete election cycle. The Elections Department plans to start its advertising push after Oct. 1 to allow people enough time to hear about and understand the new voting model.

“I think that will take a little assistance to get the word out,” she said.

This year’s Nov. 5 Election Day will feature 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be low. However, county election officials view the election as an important dress rehearsal for the November 2020 presidential election.

Both will join Harris County, which had its dry run in May and will get a fuller test this November, with the city of Houston elections and the Metro referendum. It’s a good thing that voting centers are spreading, because traditional polling places have been going away in the state in recent years.

A new report out from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that Texas is leading the nation in polling place closures, another practice that voting rights advocates fear can lead to disenfranchisement.

The report, titled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” looked at 757 of the 861 counties and county-level equivalents across the nation that were previously covered by Section 5, and found that 750 polling places in Texas have been shuttered since Shelby. That constitutes almost half of all polling places in the U.S. closed since 2013. Fourteen Texas counties closed at least 50 percent of their polling places after Shelby, and 590 have been shuttered since the 2014 midterm election.

Maricopa County in Arizona had the most polling place closures, but that was followed by six counties in Texas: Dallas lost 74 places; Travis lost 67; Harris shuttered 52; Brazoria closed 37; and Nueces closed 37.

“The large number of polling location closures is attributable to the size of Texas and the fact that we’re no longer under preclearance,” said Beth Stevens, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Now, “there’s no one [the state needs] to ask for permission to make changes.”

[…]

This comes into focus when looking at the demographics of some of the counties that saw the most closures. Brazoria County, which lost 59 percent of its polling locations since Shelby, is 30 percent Latino and 13 percent African American. The number of polling places in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi and 63 percent Latinx, dropped by nearly a third. In Jefferson County, where Beaumont is located, about 34 percent of its 250,000 residents are African American and 20 percent are Latino; polling places there dropped from 57 in 2012 to 39 in 2018.

The report attributes some of these closures to jurisdictions adopting the county-wide polling program and opening voting mega-centers. By allowing people to cast a ballot on Election Day at any location, instead of bounding them to their precinct, the program is supposed to make voting easier (more locations to choose from, shorter lines).

The Texas Civil Rights Project is supportive of the program, said Stevens—so long as it’s enacted responsibly. She pointed to counties like Harris and Bexar as good examples: they’ve moved to county-wide polling while maintaining every single polling location that they would otherwise be required to have.

But, the report notes, some counties with large drops in polling locations—like Somervell (minus 80 percent), Loving (minus 75 percent), and Stonewall (minus 75 percent)—didn’t transition to vote centers. The report adds, “voters in counties that still hold precinct-style elections have 250 fewer voting locations than they did in 2012.”

The report is here and I’ve just glanced at some of it, so I can’t give you too much extra context. Some of what’s reported in the Observer is a bit alarmist, however. Loving County had 110 total registered voters in 2016, and its demographics are almost entirely Anglo. I’d bet that its “75% reduction” is going from four sites to one. Stonewall County had 998 RVs total in 2016. Every voter counts, but not every county’s actions are equal in scope. The statistics for Brazoria, Jefferson, and Nueces counties sounds more ominous, but all of them use voting centers as well. Travis County, of course, is one of the pioneers of voting centers; one of the people in charge of implementing the Harris County program came from the Travis County Clerk’s office having done the same thing there. What all this means is we need more information about how well or not these are working and what the effect are on voters of color. Which, as is noted in the report summary, is a hard thing to assess without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This is definitely something to watch, I just can’t say right now what the level of concern needs to be. The Chron, whose story gets more into the details about voting centers, has more.

We have a new SOS

Yippie.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

After losing his last chief election officer over a botched review of the state’s voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed a new secretary of state: Ruth Ruggero Hughs.

Ruggero Hughs is moving from the Texas Workforce Commission, which she has chaired since August 2018. She joins the secretary of state’s office nearly three months after Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of her predecessor, David Whitley, who questioned the voter registration of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Whitley resigned on May 27, lacking enough votes in the Texas Senate to keep the job after he oversaw an effort to scour the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens. The review instead threatened the voting rights of tens of thousands of voters of color, landed the state in federal court and prompted a congressional inquiry into voting rights violations.

[…]

Ruggero Hughs is likely to face a challenge in repairing the secretary of state’s relationship with the hundreds of local officials it depends on to run elections. Some county officials have said they’re still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the review so wrong.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Abbott took his sweet time naming a replacement, because he’s Greg Abbott and he does what he wants. Whether Ruggero Hughs winds up being a better SOS than David Whitley was isn’t a high bar to clear, but the real question is whether she’ll be Abbott’s flunky or an honest broker. We’ll have to wait and see, and keep a very close eye on her in the meantime. Because the Lege is not in session, she’ll get to serve until 2021, at which point she’ll need to have won over at least a couple of Dems if she wants to stay in that job. The Chron has more.

Harris County gets official approval for voting centers

Full steam ahead.

Diane Trautman

Harris County on Monday received permission to use voting centers, which enable voters to cast ballots at any location they choose, in high-turnout elections, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced.

Under this system, voters are not required to vote in their assigned precinct. Trautman, who has made establishing the centers a top priority since taking office in January, has said the change will make voting easier, since residents can more easily cast ballots near work or school.

More than one-third of voters visited polling sites outside their home precinct in May’s low-turnout school and municipal elections during a voting centers trial run, the clerk’s office said. Trautman called that test a success and asked the secretary of state to approve using the system in general elections, which can draw more than 1 million voters.

“Feedback from communities across the county has been largely positive, and I am pleased that voters will be able to choose a convenient location to cast their ballot,” Trautman said in a statement.

See here for the background, and here for Trautman’s statement. There are some issues to work out in advance of the voting centers’ implementation, but I have faith in the Clerk’s ability to get it all done. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

No SOS

Just in case you were wondering.

Just as they do every year, hundreds of county officials from all over Texas are packing a hotel ballroom in Austin this week for three days of all things elections.

On the agenda are a session on paying for primary elections and one on procedures for voting by mail. A half-hour is reserved for policy updates from the legislative session that wrapped up in late May.

The annual seminar was originally supposed to begin with a welcome from the secretary of state, Texas’ chief election official. But with county workers gathered around dozens of round tables, this year’s confab kicked off with a deputy; the secretary of state position has been vacant since late May, when David Whitley lost his job over a botched review of the voter rolls.

It’s been 63 days since Democratic senators blocked Whitley’s confirmation and cut his tenure short. The Texas Constitution states the governor shall “without delay” make another nomination to fill the vacant post. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to questions about why the post has remained vacant for so long and whether there was a timeline in place to name a replacement.

[…]

Some county officials are looking to new leadership as a reset. But there was little mention of the vacancy at the top of the secretary of state’s office or of the state’s errors on Monday morning. Instead, Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, informed county workers that the secretary of state’s office would be moving forward with a revised effort to review the voter rolls for noncitizens.

Pointing to the settlement in the litigation from earlier this year, Ingram said the state would be rolling out lists of registered voters who visited the Department of Public Safety and indicated they were not citizens in the last week. Those weekly review efforts could begin as soon as next month.

“We’re currently testing the data with DPS to make sure we don’t run into more problems,” Ingram said.

Election security was top of mind at the state’s seminar, which Ingram opened by noting that the election process — and the need to enforce security measures — was on “display like never before” following Russian interference in the 2016 election and fears about foreign intrusion during the 2020 cycle.

But with no secretary of state, Texas won’t have its top elections official at an all-day training by the Department of Homeland Security on securing elections. This week’s seminar is the only time this many local election officials will all be in the same room discussing election procedures and security ahead of the 2020 election cycle.

“There’s never a good time for them to have that vacancy at the top,” [Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators] said. “But this really isn’t a good time.”

That sure is some sweet, sweet leadership from Greg Abbott, who as the story notes filled the previous vacancy with Whitley a mere 17 days after the job opened up. It’s not like I have any faith in Abbott’s ability to pick a new SOS, but we ought to have someone who is accountable for election security in 2020. But Abbott’s donors don’t care about this, so then neither does he.

It’s not an apology that’s needed

This may make for good rhetoric, but it’s not what the goal should be.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett on Friday demanded Gov. Greg Abbott apologize to Texas voters for attempting to purge as many as 95,000 people from Texas voter rolls and said Congress should sue for state records that could show how the plan unfolded if state officials continue to stonewall.

The Texas Democrats said Congress should use every tool at its disposal to investigate the purge they said would have suppressed Latino voter turnout in hopes it will prevent a repeat before the 2020 elections.

“I want them to really put the screws on the governor’s office that it looks like has coordinated an attack on our democracy,” said Castro of San Antonio. “It’s important that we make sure this doesn’t happen again, because if they feel like they got away or they got away with it, then I think they’ll do it again.”

[…]

Castro said he expects the congressional committee to request documents from Texas state lawmakers who may have received some relevant records and signed non-disclosure agreements. After exhausting those and other options, he said he would urge the committee to take Texas to court for records.

“If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they turn those documents over? If we don’t get it, then we should sue,” Castro said.

Doggett, whose district stretches from San Antonio to Austin, said “no tools will be off the table. We’re going to take whatever steps are necessary.”

[…]

Agencies have largely declined to release internal communications that could show how the attempted voter purge was conceived or how the error-ridden list of suspected non-citizens was vetted before its release. In declining to release its own emails, the governor’s office has cited broad exemptions, including attorney client privilege and deliberative process.

Joe Larsen, a first amendment attorney with Houston-based Gregor Cassidy, PLLC, said the governor’s office should have to provide those answers.

“There’s a vital public interest in the disclosure of this information,” he said.

The state also has not released the list of more than 95,000 registered voters that were flagged as potential non-citizens.

That’s a departure from 2012, when the state made public the records used to create an erroneous list of dead people it tried to purge from the voter rolls. Then, the Houston Chronicle found the state had mistakenly matched living voters with deceased strangers from across the country.

See here for some background. I’m mostly interested in the “urge the committee to take Texas to court for records”, because I think the only way to get these records is going to be via court order. There’s just no way Abbott et al will give them up voluntarily. They don’t think they need to, and they don’t see themselves as being answerable to Democratic politicians. Taking this to the courts, and voting these unaccountable princelings out of office at the next opportunity are the answers.