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Our nanny state and vote by mail applications

Sen. Paul Bettencourt purses his lips and wags his finger and is very disappointed in your county government.

Republican state lawmakers have filed bills to codify the Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all of its 2.4 million registered voters.

Senate Bill 208, authored by Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Brian Birdwell; Bob Hall and Kel Seliger, would stop election officials from sending absentee ballot applications, regardless of eligibility. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, a Republican from Houston, filed a companion bill, House Bill 25.

“We must recognize the obvious that we didn’t need to mail 2M+ absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Harris County to have a record 11.2 million Texas voters cast their ballots in November,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “It is important to note that the 66.2% turnout in 2020 was without wasting taxpayer money by doing shotgun mailings to everyone on the voter roll.”

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to do so, an attempt to make voting easier during the pandemic, was thwarted after the county’s Republican Party sued. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in early October that Hollins would be exceeding his authority, though two lower courts had previously approved of the mass mailings.

Hollins had already sent out nearly 400,000 applications to Harris County voters who were 65 and older by the time the suit arose. The proposed legislation filed this month would extend to even such mailings to eligible voters because they would prevent counties from sending any unsolicited mail ballot applications.

Emphasis mine. So that first sentence about codifying the State Supreme Court decision is misleading, since this bill would now prohibit something the Court explicitly allowed. Let’s be clear about that.

Let’s also be clear that there’s no valid justification for this bill. If the voters of Harris County don’t like the way that Commissioners Court appropriates and spends money, the voters of Harris County have a simple and direct way to express that disapproval. This is Paul Bettencourt and others expressing their disapproval of Harris County voters, because he has that power.

I’m sure there will be more bills like this one, and while most of them probably won’t pass I’ll be surprised if this one manages to fail. the good news, for what it’s worth, is that the Harris County Democratic Party can continue its very successful campaign of sending mail applications to its voters, then following up with them to ensure they get and return their mail ballots. I won’t be surprised if there’s some dropoff in mail voting in the next couple of elections, as people were motivated to vote by mail due to the pandemic, but I’d expect most of those voters to just go back to voting in person. This is a legislative temper tantrum, and it can some day be fixed, but don’t forget that it happened. Republicans like Paul Bettencourt want it to be hard to vote, and they will do what they can to make it hard to vote. We should make a bigger deal about this in our campaigns.

A closer look at county races, Part 2

Part One is here. As before, this is about taking a closer look at the counties where Democrats made gains from 2016.

Collin County: Our reach may have exceeded our grasp, but it’s important to note that progress was made. A quick recap, comparing 2016:


CD03: 61.2% - 34.6%
Statewides: GOP 59-62%, Dem 32-35%
HD33: 62.6% - 34.1%
HD66: 57.4% - 38.7%
HD67: 56.6% - 39.7%
HD70: 67.1% - 28.5%
HD89: 63.5% - 32.7%

No candidates for District Court, Commissioner’s Court, countywide offices, or Constable. One candidate for Justice of the Peace.

To 2020:


CD03: 55.1% - 42.9%
Statewides: GOP 54-57%, Dem 42-44%
HD33: 59.0% - 41.0%
HD66: 49.6% - 48.9%
HD67: 51.7% - 48.3%
HD70: 61.8% - 38.2%
HD89: 59.4% - 38.5%

Candidates for seven of nine District Court benches (all in the 42-44% range), County Tax Assessor (41%), and both Commissioners Court seats (41% and 39%).

Still no candidates for any of the four Constable races. Hard to say how competitive any of them might have been, at least until a full canvass is available, but in Constable Precinct 3, the unopposed Republican got 115K votes, with 88K undervotes. Given that unopposed candidates always get more votes than candidates with major party opponents, this was probably not far from a 50-50 race. I’d be eyeing this office in 2024 if I’m a Collin County Democrat. Overall, a shift of about six or seven points down for the GOP and up for the Dems.

Denton County: Same basic story as Collin, except that we held the one State Rep race we won in 2018. Here’s the same presentation, for 2016:


CD24: 53.7% - 42.0%
CD26: 65.2% - 30.7%
Statewides: GOP 60-62%, Dem 32-34%
HD63: No Dem
HD64: 61.6% - 38.4%
HD65: 56.3% - 43.7%
HD106: No Dem

One candidate for District Court (36.3%), no candidates for any county race.

And 2020


CD24: 45.9% - 50.4%
CD26: 59.5% - 38.4%
Statewides: GOP 55-58%, Dem 40-43%
HD63: 67.4% - 32.6%
HD64: 54.9% - 45.1%
HD65: 48.5% - 51.5%
HD106: 58.5% - 41.5%

Still just one candidate for District Court, getting 42.6%. Both County Commissioner races were challenged, but still no candidates for any of the six Constable spots. Here I can’t say which if any may have been competitive, as the election night returns don’t tell me the undervotes. No matter how you look at it, you want to get some Dem candidates in these races, to help with downballot turnout.

Hays County: Like Williamson, a flip to Dems, with some downballot success as well. The big prize here was HD45, where Rep. Erin Zwiener knocked off incumbent Jason Isaac in 2018, two years after Isaac had been unopposed for re-election. Rep. Zwiener easily held on against Carrie Isaac, winning with 53.3% of the vote. In 2016, Lamar Smith took the CD21 portion of Hays 53-39, Roger Williams won the CD25 portion of Hays 60-35, and statewide Republicans won with 47-49% over Dems with scores in the 40-44% range. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost in SBOE5 49-46. There was one District Court race, with an unopposed Republican, the Democratic candidate for Sheriff lost by 13 points, and there was no Dem running for Tax Assessor. There were a mix of Dem and GOP winners, some unopposed, for Commissioners Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.

In 2020, Wendy Davis took the CD21 piece 49-46, while Julie Oliver held Roger Williams to a 57-41 edge. (There’s also a piece of CD35 in Hays County. Pound for pound, Hays is at least as sliced up at the Congressional level as Travis County is.) Statewide Dems were now universal winners in Hays, ranging from Chrysta Castaneda’s 49.8% to Elizabeth Frizell’s 53.1%. Rebecca Bell-Metereau won in SBOE5 50.5% to 44.8%. Hays County now had a second District Court seat, won by a Democrat, and a new County Court at Law seat, also won by a Dem. The same Republican judge who was unopposed in 2016 was unopposed in 2020 as well. Dems now had challengers for both Sheriff and Tax Assessor, and while they both lost it was 51-49 in each. Dems had a challenger for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3, losing 52-48 after not contesting the position in 2016. The Dem Constable who won Precinct 2 by 110 votes in 2016 was re-elected by 2,500 votes in 2020. I’d say Hays is a bit like Harris County in 2012, where Dems are the majority but they do better at the top of the ticket, and aren’t quite able to knock out Republican countywide officeholders. There are definitely opportunities here going forward.

Brazoria County: This is more a story of stasis than progress. Trump carried Brazoria County by 29K votes in 2016, and he carried it by 28K votes in 2020. I’d rather go this direction than the other one, but we’re not getting anywhere at that rate. If we pull the curtain back a little farther, here’s the margin of victory in Brazoria County for the Republican Presidential candidate in each election since 2004: 34,758 (04), 29,035 (08), 36,441 (12), 29,591 (16), 28,159 (20). The long-term arc is fine, it’s just slow.

Republican statewides won the county with leads in the 30-34K range in 2016, and roughly the same in 2020. The percentages are closer, because that’s how ratios work, but the absolute difference in votes is more or less the same. That’s why I always aim to report both figures in posts like this, because you need both dimensions to understand what is really happening. For what it’s worth, Sri Kulkarni lost the CD22 portion of Brazoria by 6K votes after Mark Gibson lost it by 14K in 2016, but in the end that didn’t amount to much. I see Brazoria as being similar to Fort Bend twenty years ago, with a lot of work needed to move it in the same direction that Fort Bend has gone.

That’s all I’ve got for this exercise. There are some opportunities out there, but nothing can be taken for granted. Broadly speaking, the key is to run candidates in these downballot races – for one, there’s winnable contests out there, and for two, this is a key component to building a bench of future candidates. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as we have seen in Harris County, having a good county government is a big win on its own.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

We’re number one (million)!

One million COVID cases in Texas. Hooray?

Texas’ grim distinction as the national leader in terms of COVID-19 infections came as little surprise to some local medical experts, who blamed politicians for conflicting messages about the virus and warned the worst is yet to come.

Texas this week breached a milestone of 1 million cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic, recording more infections than any other state in the U.S. For reference, more people have been infected in the Lone Star state than live in Austin, the state’s capitol.

If Texas were its own country, it would rank 10th in terms of total cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, placing it higher than European hotspots like Italy.

The big numbers are not a shock in a state that’s home to roughly 29 million people. The number of cases per 100,000 residents is lower here than in about half of the states in the country. But Texas also had more newly reported cases in the last seven days — an average of about 8,200 — than other large, hard-hit states such as New York, California and Florida. Only Illinois has a higher seven-day average.

Dr. David Callender, president of the Memorial Hermann Health System, called the 1 million cases “a sobering statistic.”

“It’s not a surprise in the context of all that’s happened,” Callender said. “But it’s a significant number — 3 percent of the population — and cause for worry about the trend continuing as we go forward.”

Callender attributed the high number to “too much division” in the attempt to contain the virus.

“To me, politics entered in an inappropriate way,” said Callender. “People making a political statement with their behavior — that the pandemic is a hoax, that no one can make them wear a mask — really interfered with efforts. It was the wrong mindset.”

To be fair, California is a couple of days behind us, and may have passed one million by the time I publish this. Of course, California also has ten million more people than Texas, so.

The state’s positive test rate is now 11.24%, compared to 7.64% a month ago.

Hey, remember when a 10% positivity rate was considered to be a “warning flag” by Greg Abbott? You know, as part of his famous “metrics” for reopening the state?

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Too busy propping up Donald Trump’s ego to deal with this kind of trivia, I suppose.

Meanwhile, in El Paso

The number of coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals has nearly doubled since October, and average infections are at their highest point in almost three months — leaving health officials bracing for a potential crush of hospitalizations going into the holidays.

In El Paso, hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that in early November the Department of Defense sent medical teams to help, and the county has summoned 10 mobile morgues to hold dead bodies. Local funeral homes are readying extra refrigerated storage space, as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the far West Texas city has shot up nearly tenfold since the start of September.

The new wave of infections stands in contrast to the summer surge, when Gov. Greg Abbott held regular press conferences about the virus and mandated that face coverings be worn, earning him the ire of the far-right. Now, state officials seem reluctant to crack down on the virus’ spread by further curtailing economic activity — and are fighting the El Paso county judge’s attempt to impose a curfew and a stay-at-home order in the face of record-breaking cases.

The state will not do anything to help, and you local leaders are not allowed to do anything to help. You’re on your own. If you’re very lucky, maybe you won’t have your health insurance taken away while you recover. Did I mention that disaster and emergency response ought to be a big theme of the 2022 election? Texas Monthly has more.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here.

Initial thoughts about the election

And now for some reactions and analysis…

– The polls were garbage. Oy vey. Not just here, though they were definitely off here, underestimating Trump and the Republicans after doing the same to Beto and the Dems in 2018. This time, after all that national soul-searching following the 2016 state-level misfires (the national polling was fairly accurate overall in 2016), we got this flaming mess. Not my problem to solve, but I wonder how much of this is the known issue of “differential response” writ large. We know that in some circumstances, like when there’s been a big news event, one candidate’s supporters, or members of one party in general, may be more or less likely to answer the phone and respond to a pollster. It may be that just as a matter of course now, Republicans are less likely to respond to polls, in a bigger way than previously thought, and that had a disproportionate effect on the numbers. I’m just guessing here, but if that’s the case then perhaps the web panel approach to polling needs to be used more often. For what it’s worth, the UT/Texas Tribune and UH Hobby School polls from October, both of which had Trump up 50-45, used web panels. Maybe that’s a fluke, maybe they had a better likely voter model going in, maybe they were onto something that the others weren’t, I don’t know. But they came the closest, so they get the glory. As for the rest, thanks for nothing.

– Along those same lines, pollsters who did deeper dive polls on Latino voters, such as Univision and Latino Decisions, really need to question their methods and figure out how they went so mind-bogglingly wrong. I get that what we had, at least to some extent, appears to have been lower-propensity Latino voters turning out at surprisingly high levels for Trump, but damn, this is your job. You need to be on top of that.

– The old adage about “Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state” can be safely buried for now. We had record-breaking turnout, over 11 million votes cast when we’d never surpassed nine million before, and yet Trump still won by six points while other statewide Republicans were winning by nine to eleven points. To be sure, that’s closer than 2016 was, but at this rate we’ll need to have thirty million people voting for Dems to catch up, and I feel confident saying that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. The lesson here is that there are low-propensity Republican voters, too, and they are capable of showing up when they are persuaded. We saw that happen in 2018, and we saw it again this year.

I admit I bought into the hype, and put too much faith into the idea that the non-voters would be more consistently Democratic than Republican. To be fair, I think that was the case in 2018, as Democrats made huge gains relative to past off years. It’s certainly been the case in Harris County that increases in voter registration have led to significant increases in Democratic votes – I’ll get to this in more detail later in the post, but this can be pretty easily quantified, and it’s why Dems have been dominating the countywide races with increasing ease. It’s where those gains came from that seems to have been a difference-maker.

I don’t want to sell short what was accomplished here. Joe Biden got over 1.3 million more votes than Hillary Clinton; Trump improved on his total by about 1.15 million. Chrysta Castaneda got 1.36 million more votes than Grady Yarbrough. The statewide judicial candidates got between 3,378,163 and 3,608,634 votes in 2016; in 2020, the range was 4,762,188 to 4,899,270 votes. If you want to be particularly gruesome, Biden got 3.3 million more votes than Wendy Davis did for Governor in 2014. Granted, Trump outdid Greg Abbott by just over 3 million votes, but still. A lot more people now have voted for a Democrat in Texas than at any other point in history. Even as we pick through the wreckage, that’s worth keeping in mind.

So how do we close that remaining gap of 700K to one million voters statewide? One, we should remember that off year elections are far more volatile from a turnout perspective, and we need to do everything we can to make these new folks habitual voters while we continue to register and recruit new voters. Two, having dynamic statewide candidates, who can learn the lessons of these past elections while applying them to the environment they’re in, would help. And three, maybe we need to give another look to the reviled old “persuasion” strategy, and see how we can do a better job of peeling away some of the other guy’s voters. Easier said than done, but then that’s why I’m a blogger and not a campaign professional.

– By the way, if anyone asks you who the current all-time vote leader in Texas is, the answer as of 2020 is Supreme Court Justice Jane Bland, who tipped the scales at 6,002,233 votes. No one else topped six million. She was helped by not having a third-party opponent in the race; the Libertarians in three other races got between 254L and 283K votes.

– I take no position on the question about whether the Republicans’ continued use of traditional door-to-door campaigning during the pandemic, which the Democrats largely eschewed out of a sense of safety for their campaign workers and as a statement of living their values, was a factor in this election. The academic research on various methods of increasing turnout and persuading swing voters is mixed, and does not suggest that one method (such as door-knocking) is clearly superior to others (such as phone-banking). Winning teams always point to their methods and strategies as the reason why they won and the other team lost. I’m not saying this couldn’t have made a difference, or that it didn’t make a difference. It may have, and I have no way to disprove the assertion. I’m just saying that it’s anecdotal data, and I consider it to be such.

– Also, too: I saw people again cursing Beto’s name for not running for Senate this year. All I can say is that anyone who thinks Beto would have done better than Biden is not thinking clearly. He probably would have exceeded MJ Hegar, but there’s a lot of room between that and winning. With all the money that was spent in Texas this year, I do not buy the argument that having Beto on the ticket would have moved the needle for Dems.

– Speaking of money, hoo boy. I hope this isn’t the end of our candidates being able to raise enough of it. We’re going to need plenty in 2022.

– How much of an effect did the lack of straight ticket voting have? Far as I can tell, very little. In Harris County, there were 1,633,557 votes cast in the Presidential race. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, in the two At Large HCDE races, there were 1,551,731 and 1,548,760 votes. In other words, about 95% of the people who voted in the Presidential race also voted in these two HCDE races.

Now, if you look at the various judicial races, you will see that Democratic judicial candidates generally got 60-80K fewer votes than Biden, while most Republican judicial candidates (though not all) exceeded Trump’s total. Some of that was just crossover voting, which we knew was happening, but some of it may have been a greater propensity by Dems to skip some number of downballot races. It’s hard to say how much is each. For what it’s worth, 12 out of 15 Dem judicial candidates (district and county courts) who had a Republican opponent had fewer votes than MJ Hegar, who had 848K to Biden’s 911K, while 8 out of those 15 Republican opponents did better than John Cornyn’s 717K votes; Trump got 699K, and all but two of those Republicans did better than that, while no one came close to Biden.

So did the absence of straight ticket voting mean more crossovers in general? I will remind you, as I have done before, there’s always a range of outcomes in the judicial races, so there has always been some amount of crossover voting, just usually not that much. Why did MJ Hegar get so many fewer votes than Joe Biden did? Some of it was more voting for third party candidates – there were 22K votes for the Libertarian and Green Presidential candidates, and 42K such votes in the Senate race – some of it was the 26K fewer votes cast in the Senate race (about 98.5% of all Presidential voters also voted for a Senate candidate), and some of it was the 18K people who voted for Cornyn but not Trump. Make of that what you will.

– While I’m thinking about it, let me update that range-of-results table I just linked to:


2004 
Rep 524K to 545K
Dem 460K to 482K

2008
Rep 526K to 564K
Dem 533K to 585K

2012
Rep 550K to 580K
Dem 555K to 581K

2016
Rep 580K to 621K
Dem 643K to 684K

2020
Rep 690K to 740K
Dem 812K to 865K

So congratulations to Republicans, who have boosted their base vote by almost 200K since 2004, while Dems have increased theirs by over 380K. Five points was as close as any Republican got.

– Despite their successful defense of their Congressional and legislative seats, Republicans still face some tricky decisions in redistricting. Look at it this way – in an election year that clearly wasn’t as good for Dems as 2018 was, they still managed to hold onto all but one of the seats they won that year. The same map that gave Republicans 95 House members was only good for 83 this year, and it wouldn’t have taken much to knock that number down by a half dozen or so. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button may have survived, but Dallas County is a problem for the GOP. Harris County has three safe Republican districts – HDs 127, 128, and 130 – four that are still pretty safe but have gotten a lot less so over the decade – HDs 126, 129, 133, and 150 – and two on the knife’s edge, HDs 132 and 138. That may have been hard to see from the vantage point of 2011, but the broad outlines of it were there, and as I have noted before, HDs 132 and 135 were already trending Dem in 2012, with both being a little bluer than they were in 2008 despite 2012 being a slightly lesser year for Dems overall. Who’s going to need protection, and whose seat may wind up on a target list a couple of cycles later because you didn’t understand the demographics correctly? In Congress, Dan Crenshaw won by a comfortable 14 points…in a district Ted Poe won by 24 points in 2016, and 32 points in 2012. How do you shore him up? Splitting pieces of Travis County into four Republican districts was a great idea, until it threatened the re-election of three of those Republicans. Who even knows how many Congressional seats we’ll have, given the chaotic nature of the Census?

Oh, and here in Harris County, I’m sure the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court will bolster Adrian Garcia in CC2, as the Republicans did for Jack Morman in 2010. The bigger question is do they go after their new colleague Tom Ramsey, or do they just not help him out and hope nature takes its course? That’ll be fun to watch.

I think that’s it for now. I’m sure more things will occur to me as we go. When I get a draft canvass, I’ll start doing the usual slicing and dicing.

Federal judge denies Hotze petition

Hopefully, this will be the end of this particular nonsense.

A federal judge Monday rejected a request by a conservative activist and three Republican candidates to toss out nearly 127,000 votes cast at drive-thru polling sites in Texas’ most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, follows two earlier decisions by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court rejecting similar efforts by Republicans challenging the validity of drive-thru voting in Harris County. Although Hanen’s ruling is still expected to be appealed quickly, it appears to clear the way for counting the early voting drive-thru ballots on Election Day.

In his ruling from the bench, Hanen said he rejected the case on narrow grounds because the plaintiffs did not show they would be harmed if the drive-thru ballots are counted. He noted, however, that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could think differently if the cases reaches them.

If he had ruled on the larger issues in the case, Hanen said he would have rejected the request to toss out votes already cast. But Hanen said he would have shut down Harris County’s drive-thru polling places for Election Day, because the tents being used for the sites don’t qualify as “buildings” under state election law.

“If I were voting tomorrow … I would not vote in a drive-thru just out of my concern as to whether that’s illegal or not,” he said. “I am going to order the county to maintain all the drive-thru voting records … just in case the 5th Circuit disagrees.”

Ten percent of Harris County’s in-person early voters cast their ballots at the county’s 10 drive-thru locations. Dismissing the votes would have been a monumental disenfranchisement of voters in a presidential election besieged with fights over voter suppression and fraud.

The judge ruled from the bench after a hearing with plaintiffs, the county and numerous Texas and national voting rights and political groups joining Harris County to argue that the drive-thru program was legal under Texas election law.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is obviously a great relief, because as ridiculous as this lawsuit was, the cost of an adverse ruling was sky-high. There will be an appeal, but it looks like that will be to stop drive-through voting on Election Day, not to continue the pursuit of throwing these votes out. I think.

On that note: You saw Judge Hanen’s words about voting at a drive-through location today. Drive-through locations will be open today, and if you have the need to use one, then use it. I believe there’s form you can use to attest to your need to vote curbside, which is legally different than drive-through and which is expressly allowed under Texas law (the whole dispute here ultimately boils down to the allegation that drive-through voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting). Otherwise, I agree with the lawyers who say just park and go inside to vote. Don’t take the chance that this could come up again after the election.

Statements from the ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project are beneath the fold, and a statement from the Texas Democratic Party is here. This Twitter thread by Raffi Melkonian is a terrific blow-by-blow account of the hearing and ruling, with some explanations thrown in for the non-lawyers. The Chron, Houston Public Media, the Press, Mother Jones, Politico, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: And so the appeal is happening in the night. Here’s another Twitter thread to keep track. I hope like hell I don’t have to rewrite this whole damn post in the morning.

UPDATE: As of 9 PM, no actual filing yet.

UPDATE: OK, the petition has been filed. They are just asking for drive-through voting to be halted for Election Day. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Hopefully, this is the final final update:

You can see the denial in its glory here. The remaining drive-through location will be at the Toyota Center, which no one can deny is a building; the reason that Judge Hanen would have halted drive-through voting on Election Day is because the law is actually different for Election Day than it is for early voting, specifying “buildings” instead of “structures”. At this point, there really isn’t anything left to litigate. Happy voting to whoever will be doing so today.

(more…)

A focus on the SCOTX races

With so much litigation over a variety of voting issues, the Supreme Court of Texas is in the news a lot these days. Will that mean more attention being paid to the four races for SCOTX positions?

Justice Gisela Triana

The sleepy contests for seats on Texas’ highest courts have taken on new energy this year as Democrats, bullish on their chances to claim seats on the all-Republican courts, seek to capitalize on a series of controversial pandemic- and election-related decisions.

Voters have the chance to choose four justices on the nine-member Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest court for civil matters, and three judges on its sister body, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

It’s notoriously difficult for judicial candidates, even those running for the state’s high courts, to capture voters’ attention, particularly with a hotly contested presidential race above them on the ballot. But this year, Democrats say they have something new to run against: decisions by the high court to end Texas’ eviction moratorium and election opinions that limited mail-in voting options.

“The Supreme Court has been in the news on almost a weekly basis over the last several months … with all the election shenanigans that are going on,” said Justice Gisela Triana, who serves on the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals and is running as a Democrat for a seat on the high court. “I think they’ve been complicit in allowing the Republican Party to try to make it harder for people to vote.”

For Republicans, meanwhile, the virus is an argument for sticking with the status quo. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who faces reelection this fall, said unprecedented challenges of access to justice and budget concerns during the pandemic would best be handled by a judge with experience running the court.

“We’re in such untraveled waters — dangerous, difficult, challenging times,” said Hecht, who has served on the court for more than three decades. “It takes some leadership not only to try to discern a wise course through all this, but to get the other branches to go along with you.”

[…]

Even as President Donald Trump runs an unusually tight race in Texas with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, less controversial Republicans lower on the ballot are expected to perform better in Texas. Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, facing Democrat MJ Hegar, has shown a wider lead in polling than the president, and statewide judicial candidates outperformed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and Trump in 2016.

Republicans say they’re confident Trump will carry the state — but that the judges could win even if he doesn’t.

Pollsters sometimes view statewide judicial races as pure tests of a voter’s partisan allegiance since so few Texans are familiar with the candidates.

“Even though we’re toward the top of the ticket, people don’t know much about who we are,” Hecht said.

[…]

Along with new attention to the high court comes the uncertainty about what the end of straight-ticket voting will mean for Texas. This Nov. 3 marks the first election in which Texans won’t have the option of voting for every candidate in a certain party with just one punch — a colossal change whose effects neither party can fully anticipate.

All that, coupled with a volatile presidential race, means “you just can’t tell” where the outcome may land, Hecht said.

“It’s just completely unpredictable,” Boyd said. A higher profile for the court could help him as an incumbent, he said.

“If people are seeing the coverage and thinking, ‘I need to do my homework on these races,’ I have full confidence that when they do their homework they’ll end up supporting me,” Boyd said.

Democrats see reason for optimism in early voting totals, which have shattered records, especially in large, blue counties like Harris. But Republicans are also turning out to vote early in high numbers.

And there may be more reason for Democrats to be hopeful. Keir Murray, a Democratic operative in Houston, said based on the statewide numbers he’s seeing, women are outvoting men by 10 points — a potentially major boon for an all-female Democratic slate for Supreme Court.

“Women usually outvote men, but not to that degree,” he said.

Let’s start with the obvious – the statewide judicial races are mostly affected by the Presidential race. It’s true that the Supreme Court has been in the news a lot recently and have made a number of consequential rulings that affect not just the election and how it is being conducted but also the COVID pandemic and how it is being handled. The story does a good job laying all this out, and I’d be willing to believe that a lot of people are at least aware of these things. How many of those people are more likely to vote, or are likely to change how they vote, as a result of these stories is a question none of us can answer, but my suspicion is that it’s pretty small. Makes for good speculation and the basis of stories like these, but that’s as far as we can go.

What about the claim that Republicans are likely to win the statewide judicial races even if Biden carries Texas? It’s kind of amazing that Republicans would advance that hypothesis instead of just laugh off the question, but a check of recent elections suggests they’re onto something. All of the Republicans running for statewide judicial office in 2016 won by a wider margin than Trump did, and all of the Republicans running for statewide judicial office in 2018 won by a wider margin than Ted Cruz did. If there are Republican voters who don’t vote for Trump like that, then that’s a plausible scenario. I feel like a lot of the people who avoided Trump but otherwise mostly voted R in 2016 were voting mostly D in 2018, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Keir Murray’s point about the electorate being disproportionately female so far means Dems are probably doing pretty well so far and that’s a boost for all Dem candidates, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the court candidates may do compared to Trump. I don’t think the Cornyn/Hegar polling tells us all that much either, as there’s a name recognition component to that.

An alternate possibility is that some number of people who vote for Trump will peace out after that. Trump has spent plenty of time attacking Republicans, too, so some of his supporters are loyal to him but not the party. The 2016 experience suggests that’s unlikely, but maybe this year is different. I don’t think the lack of straight ticket voting will matter much. The Supreme Court Chief Justice election is the fifth race people will see on their ballots, following the three federal elections (President, US Senate, US House) and Railroad Commissioner. Maybe some people who aren’t strong partisans will skip those races because they don’t feel they know the candidates well enough, but it won’t be because they’re tired of all that voting.

Look, Democrats are motivated to vote, and they’re pissed at the rulings in some of these lawsuits, even if SCOTX maintained its integrity in the latest Hotze provocation. I think there’s a strong urge to vote all the way down. I just don’t know how to quantify that. I’ll know more after the election.

SCOTX rejects Hotze petition to throw out drive through votes

One piece of good news.

A legal cloud hanging over nearly 127,000 votes already cast in Harris County was at least temporarily lifted Sunday when the Texas Supreme Court rejected a request by several conservative Republican activists and candidates to preemptively throw out early balloting from drive-thru polling sites in the state’s most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The all-Republican court denied the request without an order or opinion, as justices did last month in a similar lawsuit brought by some of the same plaintiffs.

The Republican plaintiffs, however, are pursuing a similar lawsuit in federal court, hoping to get the votes thrown out by arguing that drive-thru voting violates the U.S. constitution. A hearing in that case is set for Monday morning in a Houston-based federal district court, one day before Election Day. A rejection of the votes would constitute a monumental disenfranchisement of voters — drive-thru ballots account for about 10% of all in-person ballots cast during early voting in Harris County.

[…]

Curbside voting, long available under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office argued that its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore can be available to all voters. The clerk’s filing with the Supreme Court in the earlier lawsuit also said the Texas secretary of state’s office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

Plus, the county argued in a Friday filing that Texas’s election code, along with court rulings, have determined that even if the drive-thru locations are violations, votes cast there are still valid.

“More than a century of Texas case law requires that votes be counted even if election official[s] violate directory election laws,” the filing said.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad to see SCOTX affirm my faith in them. They’re partisan, but I didn’t think they would want to set their reputations, and the court’s legitimacy, on fire for such a blatant and sloppy effort to disenfranchise thousands of people. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

There’s still the matter of that federal lawsuit, for which there will be a hearing this morning at 10:30. I have no idea when there might be a ruling – it’s not out of the question that the judge could rule immediately upon the completion of the hearing – but it’s still looming out there. If you were one of the 126K+ drive-through voters, you can add yourself to the lawsuit as an intervenor, and put your experience on the record. Just fill out this form – quickly, the hearing is at 10:30 as noted – and you’ll have done your part. Here’s hoping. The Statesman has more.

UPDATE: From Twitter:

The attached brief is custom-made to convince a partisan Republican judge to throw out the plaintiffs’ petition. Let’s hope this helps.

Hotze and Woodfill take their fight against drive-thru voting to federal court

Just another quiet Saturday…

Mark can be a bit of an alarmist, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. For what it’s worth, Rick Hasen thinks this suit is without merit, though again worth worrying about given the deranged nature of parts of the federal judiciary these days.

Mark Stern flagged this new lawsuit filed in federal court which seeks to throw out over 100,000 ballots cast by Harris County, Texas voters who voted using drive-thru voting in Texas. There was an earlier lawsuit in state court seeking to block this means of voting on grounds that it purportedly violated Texas law, but the Texas Supreme Court rejected that claim. This new lawsuit is making the same novel claims under the “independent state legislature” doctrine that any actions by any state court or state agency not specifically authorized by the legislature is an unconstitutional usurpation of the legislature’s power. It’s this same audacious and unproven theory that formed the background for the outrageous 8th Circuit order this week over segregating ballots in Minnesota. The lawsuit has been assigned to Judge Hanen (a judge who had struck down all of Obamacare at one point before being reversed), who has already scheduled a hearing.

On the merits, this case should be a sure loser, but given how crazy things are getting in the federal courts these days, I cannot be 100 percent confident in my predictions. Here are some of the reasons this suit should be thrown out decisively

You can click over and read Hasen’s reasons, and you can read these threads by law professor Michael Morley and Buzzfeed News reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy for more reasons. You should also remember that at the end of the day, Jared Woodfill is a complete moron, and anything that relies on his legal acumen is likely to fall well short of the mark. Again, that doesn’t mean that a pliant federal judge won’t give him what he wants. It just means that would be the only reason why he’d succeed. Democracy Docket has intervened, and Josh Marshall, whose post alerted me to Mark Joseph Stern’s tweets, has more.

In the meantime, the State Supreme Court will also be dealing with this tomorrow.

The Texas Supreme Court drew alarmed attention Friday after directing Harris County to respond to a petition that seeks to invalidate more than 117,000 votes cast in drive-thru lanes.

The court’s interest came as an unwelcome surprise to voting advocates and Harris County officials who were banking on a quick dismissal of the petition, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House.

[…]

The petition — filed by state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, GOP activist Steven Hotze and two Republican candidates in Harris County — argued that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

The court responded by giving Harris County until 4 p.m. Friday to file a legal brief responding to the petition, raising fears that the Supreme Court was giving consideration to tossing out tens of thousands of ballots.

However, it takes only one justice on the nine-member court to request a response to a petition, and there is no way of knowing how many justices were interested in Harris County’s response because the court does not disclose that information.

In addition, before tossing out the votes, the court would have to acknowledge that 117,000 Harris County voters had visited a drive-thru polling site by Thursday night, including more than 42,000 drive-thru votes that were cast since justices first had a chance to stop the practice a week earlier but did not.

In a memo prepared for Harris County on the issue, noted Austin lawyer C. Robert Heath said the bid to void drive-thru votes faces the daunting challenge of overcoming a key legal supposition — that state laws are to be interpreted in favor of preserving the right to vote.

“If a court or other authority were to decide to invalidate those votes, it would require ignoring or overruling more than a century of Texas law,” Heath concluded.

In the brief requested by the Supreme Court, Harris County lawyers argued that there is nothing illegal about drive-thru voting, nor can votes cast that way be considered illegal.

“Uncountable votes are those that resulted from clear fraudulent behavior,” they argued. “There is nothing about an eligible voter casting an in-person vote from their car that renders their vote illegal, fraudulent, or not countable.”

The brief argued that drive-thru voting is just another polling choice with a different structure. Vehicles enter the voting area, typically a large individual tent, one at a time. A clerk checks each voter’s photo ID and has them sign a roster before handing over a sanitized voting machine.

More importantly, the county said, drive-thru voting was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted and was used, without objection, in the July primary runoff election.

Reform Austin also covered this, with a focus on Harris County’s response, so go check that out. This is another reason why we need comprehensive legislation, at both the state and national levels, to clarify, affirm, and assert the right to vote, and to explicitly ratify different methods to expand voting access. If nothing else, that is needed to ward off future bullshit lawsuits like these.

As for this one, I maintain my belief that SCOTX is unlikely to do anything radical. You are free to freak out as you see fit over either of these.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

UPDATE: If you participated in drive-through voting and want to intervene in this federal lawsuit, fill out this form.

One last, desperate attempt to kill drive-though voting

These guys really suck. Not much more can be said.

A new challenge to Harris County’s drive-thru voting sites, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House, asks the state Supreme Court to void ballots “illegally” cast by voters in cars.

That could put more than 100,000 ballots at risk, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats and raising fears among voters, including those with disabilities and others who were directed into drive-thru lanes as a faster method of voting.

[…]

One of the unsuccessful challenges was filed by the Republican Party of Texas. The second was from the Harris County GOP, activist Steven Hotze, and Sharen Hemphill, a GOP candidate for district judge in Harris County. Neither petition sought to void votes.

That changed with the latest petition filed shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday by Hotze, Hemphill, GOP congressional candidate Wendell Champion, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

The new petition asks the all-Republican Supreme Court to confiscate memory cards from voting machines at drive-thru locations and reject any votes cast in violation of state election laws.

The petition argues that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who submit a sworn application saying they have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

“Hollins is allowing curbside/drive-thru voting for all 2.37 million registered voters in Harris County. This is a clear and direct violation of his duties,” the petition argued.

But Hollins has said drive-thru voting is just another polling place with a different layout and structure, and that it was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted.

Vehicles form lines and enter the voting area one at a time, where a clerk checks each voter’s photo ID, has them sign a roster and hands over a sanitized voting machine. Voting typically takes place in large individual tents, and poll watchers can observe the processing of voters no differently than in traditional voting locations, Hollins has argued.

See here for the previous entry. As I said yesterday, I just don’t believe the Supreme Court will do this. It’s such a drastic step to take, it’s punitive towards a lot of voters who had every reason to believe they were doing something legal, it would be an enormous partisan stain on the court and the justices, four of whom are on the ballot themselves, and as I said if the court felt such an outcome was in play, they could have clearly signaled it earlier to minimize the effect on the voters. Maybe I’m naive, or willfully blind. This just seems like a bridge way too far. I guess we’ll find out.

SCOTX upholds Abbott’s limit on mail ballot dropoff locations

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

In what’s expected to be the final ruling on the matter, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to only one drop-off location for voters to hand deliver their absentee ballots during the pandemic.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the all-Republican court, is the final outcome in one of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenged Abbott’s order from early this month. A federal appeals court also sided with the Republican governor in an earlier ruling, overturning a lower court’s decision.

The state lawsuit argued that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand-delivery locations, and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution. The suit was filed in Travis County by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group and a voter.

In their opinion, the justices wrote that Abbott’s order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

See here for the previous update. In a narrow and technical sense, the Supreme Court is correct. Abbott did in fact expand voting options with his original order, which not only added that extra week to early voting but also allowed for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period. State law only allows for that on Election Day, one of many problems that will need a legislative fix in the near future. But we all know that the purpose of his amended order, more than two months after Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had announced his plan to have dropoff locations at all 12 County Clerk offices, and several days after people began using those locations, was to issue a rebuke to Hollins for having the nerve to innovate like that, and to throw a bone to the howling nihilists in his own party that were attacking him for taking any step to make voting easier. The limit served no legitimate purpose, and was done in haste and with politics in mind. It is what it is at this point, and as with every other ad hoc obstacle thrown in our path, the voters have adjusted. We’ll be coming for you soon, Greg. The Chron has more.

UH-Hobby: Trump 50, Biden 45

Here’s a poll result that stands in contrast to the others we have seen lately.

President Donald Trump is leading Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by more than five points among likely voters in Texas, according to a poll released Monday by the Hobby School for Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

The poll, conducted between Oct. 13 and Oct. 20, found 50% of voters said they already had or will vote for Trump, while 44.7% said they had or will vote for Biden.

Trump and running mate Mike Pence carried Texas by nine points in 2016.

The Republican edge held for statewide contests down the ballot, including for U.S. Senate, Texas Railroad Commission and three statewide judicial races covered by the poll.

“Record turnout in early voting clearly shows the state’s Democrats are energized, but at least at the top of the ticket, that enthusiasm appears unlikely to overcome the Republican advantage among men, Anglos and older voters,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School. “In fact, we found the Republican candidate leading by wider margins in statewide races farther down the ballot.”

Among the findings:

  • More than 40% had already voted at the time of the poll. Biden held a substantial edge among those voters, leading Trump 59% to 39%. Almost two-thirds of those who plan to vote on Election Day said they will vote for Trump.
  • Incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn leads Democratic challenger MJ Hegar 48.9% to 41.6%.
  • Republican Jim Wright is leading in the race for an open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, with 46.8% of the vote; Democrat Chrysta Castañeda has 38.4%.
  • Biden holds a slight edge among women, 49.5% to 46%. Trump is preferred among men by a notably larger margin, 54.3% to 39.5%.
  • While 63% of Anglos support Trump, and 87% of African-American voters back Biden, the gap is narrower among Latino voters: 56% support Biden, and 38% back Trump.
  • Republican Nathan Hecht leads Democrat Amy Clark Meachum 47.5% to 40% for Texas Supreme Court chief justice. For Supreme Court Justice Place 6, Republican Jane Bland leads Democrat Kathy Cheng 49.2% to 40.1%.
  • Republican Bert Richardson leads Democrat Elizabeth Davis Frizell 48.2% to 38.3% for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 3.

The full report is available on the Hobby School website.

The Hobby School did a primary poll in February and one Trump-Clinton poll around this time in 2016; they also did a couple of polls of Harris County in 2016. As noted in their introduction, this was a YouGov poll, so similar in nature to the UT/Texas Tribune polls. As I alluded to in the headline, this is the first poll we’ve had in awhile that was this positive for Trump, and it especially stands in contrast with that UT-Tyler poll that came out over the weekend. What does one make of this?

You can peruse the poll data as you wish. I’m going to note one thing that really stood out to me. The following is a list of how Independent voters went in each of the last nine polls over the past month for which that data was available (in other words, skipping the Morning Consult polls). See if you can see what I saw:


Poll      Biden   Trump
=======================
UH-Hobby     34      51
UTT/DMN      51      29
Q'piac Oct   50      39
DFP          40      36
PPP          60      35
UT-Trib      45      37
UML          43      39
NYT/Siena    41      37
Q'piac Sep   51      43

Yeah, that’s a very different result for independent voters than for basically every other poll we’ve seen. Note that the UT-Trib poll had Trump up by five, as did the Quinnipiac poll from September (both were 50-45 for Trump, in fact), and that UMass-Lowell poll had Trump up 49-46. As the song goes, one of these things is not like the others.

There are other things that can be said about this poll – I appreciate the “who has voted” versus “who has yet to vote” distinction, and I appreciate the inclusion of downballot races though I tend to discount those results because of the increase in “don’t know” responses – but this is the main thing I wanted to cover.

Links to the cited polls, and their data or crosstabs page where the numbers I included can be found:

UT-Tyler/DMNdata
Quinnipiacdata
Data for Progressdata
PPPdata
UT-Trib (data about indies in quoted excerpt)
UMass-Lowelldata
NYT/Sienadata
Quinnipiacdata

I will also note that Jim Henson and Joshua Blank have observed a shift in independents’ preferences in Texas towards indies this cycle. And now I will stop beating this horse.

SCOTX reinstates Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff location limit

They can move fast when they want to, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial order to limit Texas counties to one mail-ballot drop-off site was allowed to remain in effect Saturday by the Texas Supreme Court.

The court blocked a previous appellate court ruling that had briefly struck down Abbott’s order, which was widely decried by voting rights groups as a voter-suppression tactic. The lawsuit to overturn Abbott’s order is still pending.

In Harris County, more than 1 million voters have cast ballots during early voting, shattering previous records. Multiple drop-off sites had been set up for voters until Abbott issued his order, which he said would “stop attempts at illegal voting.”

State District Judge Tim Sulak had previously ruled that Abbott’s order would “needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections” and undermine the constitutionally protected rights of residents to vote, “as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”

Less than 24 hours after the Third Court of Appeals reinstated the district court ruling that had halted Abbott’s order. Clearly, SCOTX does not have a “we close at 5” mentality. It should be noted that this is not the end of the line. From the Statesman:

Acting soon after receiving an emergency appeal on Gov. Greg Abbott’s behalf, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order Saturday that temporarily barred counties from opening more than one drop-off site for mail-in ballots.

The court order keeps in place Abbott’s 3½-week-old proclamation that barred multiple drop-off locations that had opened in several counties, including Travis County, until the Supreme Court can determine the legality of Abbott’s limit.

With an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 3 election, the court also set tight deadlines, requiring legal briefs in the case to be filed before 5 p.m. Monday.

A ruling could come as soon as Monday night, though the Supreme Court gave no indication when it might act.

In theory, SCOTX could issue a ruling on the appeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we could get a few days of having multiple dropoff locations if the lower court order is upheld. Not great, but better than nothing. I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim, but it’s possible, and this is the best case scenario. At least you know what to hope for.

In practical terms, this means very little at this point. Very few people had ever used mail ballot dropoffs before. Existing law only allows for them to be used on Election Day – Abbott’s executive order extended that to all of early voting, which is an improvement even if his subsequent order limits it to a significant degree. Voting by mail is limited to begin with, and the vast majority of that small universe mailed their ballots in. Allowing people to drop them off at one of twelve locations instead of just one was an innovation, one of many that County Clerk Chris Hollins pioneered, and it was a welcome one in this year of COVID chaos, but losing it is more of an inconvenience than an impediment.

All that said, there is zero justification for Abbott’s order. People who wanted to drop off their mail ballots still had to go to an official County Clerk location, hand their ballot to an election judge, and show ID to have their ballot accepted. Fears of “fraud” and professions of “protecting election integrity” are empty shibboleths, the “thoughts and prayers” of vote suppression. Abbott imposed this limit as a sop to the extremists in his party who were already mad at him for adding an extra week to early voting. Hollins’ innovation made voting easier and more convenient. Abbott’s order made it harder and less convenient. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve said this before, but I firmly believe that a large majority of people like easier and more convenient voting, and support efforts to make it happen. There are lots of things the Democrats should un on in 2022. To me, this needs to be one of the big criticisms of Abbott – and Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton, and every single member of the Supreme Court – in that election. Being on the side of “easier and more convenient” is the side to be on.

Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

SCOTX rejects challenges to drive-through voting

Halle-fricking-lujah.

Voters in the state’s most populous county can continue casting their ballots for the fall election at 10 drive-thru polling places after the Texas Supreme Court Thursday rejected a last-minute challenge by the Texas and Harris County Republican parties, one of many lawsuits in an election season ripe with litigation over voting access.

The court rejected the challenge without an order or opinion, though Justice John Devine dissented from the decision.

[…]

Though the program was publicized for months before the ongoing election, it was not until hours before early voting started last week that the Texas Republican Party and a voter challenged the move in a state appeals court, arguing that drive-thru votes would be illegal. They claimed drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore should only be available for disabled voters.

Curbside voting, a long-available option under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The lawsuit also asked the court to further restrict curbside voting by requiring that voters first fill out applications citing a disability. Such applications are required for mail-in ballots, but voting rights advocates and the Harris County Clerk said they have never been a part of curbside voting.

The Harris County clerk argued its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore available to all voters. The clerk’s filing to the Supreme Court also said the Texas secretary of state’s Office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for County Clerk Chris Hollins’ attempt to get the Secretary of State on record about this. The decision came down a couple of hours after County Judge Lina Hidalgo (among others) called on Greg Abbott to do the same. This would have been a monumental middle finger to the voters of Harris County, and an utter disgrace for the Supreme Court, had they upheld the Republican challenge. I don’t know what took them so long, but if they’re going to be slow about it, they’d better get it right, and this time they did. Exhale, everyone.

We shouldn’t leave this item without giving Hollins the victory lap he deserves:

There’s a bit more on Hollins’ Twitter feed. When he says that every county should do it like this, he’s absolutely right. You can see all the SCOTX denials here, and the Chron has more.

(Oh, and let’s please do remember this when John Devine is up for election next. The rest of the court may have done the right thing, but that guy has truly got to go.)

Hollins calls on Secretary of State to defend drive through voting

Good.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking assurance from Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs that her office is “committed to defending the votes” cast at the county’s drive-thru voting sites, the subject of two lawsuits currently before the state Supreme Court.

In a letter sent to Hughs Tuesday, Hollins cited prior support from state election officials, including Elections Director Keith Ingram, for the legality of drive-thru voting. He asked Hughs to confirm by noon Wednesday that the office stands by those statements.

By noon, Hollins had not received a response from Hughs, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

A spokesman for Hughs said the office had received Hollins’ letter, but he declined to say whether Hughs or anyone from her office planned to respond. He also did not say whether Hollins had accurately characterized the position of state elections officials on drive-thru voting.

[…]

In his letter to Hughs, Hollins wrote, “Your office has repeatedly expressed that drive-thru voting fit the definitions and requirements for a polling place provided in the Texas Election Code for both Early Voting and Election Day.” During a court proceeding, Hollins wrote, Ingram called drive-thru voting “a creative approach that is probably okay legally.”

Last Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a guidance letter in which he suggested Harris County’s use of curbside voting does not pass legal muster. He wrote that state law “makes no provision for polling places located outdoors, in parking lots, or in parking structures.” The state election code also does not allow “‘drive-thru’ voting centers at which any voter may cast a ballot from his or her vehicle regardless of physical condition,” Paxton wrote.

“Curbside voting is not, as some have asserted contrary to Texas law, an option for any and all voters who simply wish to vote from the comfort of their cars when they are physically able to enter the polling place,” Paxton wrote.

You can see a video call with Hollins about this here, his official statement here, and further coverage from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer here. The concern at this point is not just that the Supreme Court might put a halt to what Harris County has been doing, but that they might invalidate the 70K+ votes that have been cast by drive-through voting. The contempt for voters that this would display, at this super late hour, is breathtaking. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I don’t know what else to say.

I don’t know when the Supreme Court might rule on this facially ridiculous challenge, but I will note that not only was it filed after early voting had begun, it’s now been a week since it was filed with SCOTX. They’re taking their sweet time about this. I hope that means that they’re not willing to stick a knife in this, but all I have is hope. Again, what this writ represents is plain and simple contempt for voters. There’s no other principle here.

On a side note, we also have this:

That is of course in reference to this turd of a Fifth Circuit ruling, and it’s exactly what we’d expect from the Clerk’s office. Every other election administrator in this state should follow their example.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

And it’s off to SCOTX for the Republicans who want to stop drive-through voting

It was inevitable.

State and local Republicans have taken their challenge of drive-thru voting in Harris County to the Texas Supreme Court.

In separate petitions, the Texas and Harris County GOP are asking the state’s highest court to limit drive-thru voting, which Clerk Christopher Hollins opened this year at 10 sites and made available to all voters.

The GOP argues the new practice is a form of curbside voting, which only is allowed for people who are sick at the time, have a physical condition that requires personal assistance or are at risk of injured health if they venture inside a polling location.

[…]

“The aforementioned criteria for curbside voting is equally applicable to ballots by mail voting,” the petition said. “With respect to ballot by mail voting, the Texas Supreme Court has already held that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code, and therefore, is not a sufficient basis to permit a voter to validly vote by mail.”

The county argues its drive-thru sites are not a form of curbside voting. The 10 sites are contained within a parking garage or tent facilities, a quality attorneys argue satisfies the criteria to be polling sites in their own right.

“The basic requirement for polling places is that it’s in a building,” Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said. “We’re interpreting that as long as we have a permanent or temporary structure,” it’s OK.

Even if it were curbside voting, Ray argued, it is up to the voter to decide whether he or she has a disability. The county does not have the legal authority to question disability claims, he said.

It is not clear how the votes already cast at drive-thru sites would be handled if the Supreme Court were to side with the plaintiffs.

The state GOP’s petition asks for a ruling forcing Hollins to “reject any curbside voting efforts” that do not comply with its interpretation of the law.

See here and here for the background, and here for both of the plaintiffs’ petitions. I have no idea how quickly the Supreme Court might move on this, but we’ve had three full days of drive-through voting so far, and going by the daily report, thousands of people have used it. I can’t imagine any ruling for the plaintiffs that wouldn’t be deeply disruptive, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s not supposed to happen with court rulings close to an election. But like I’ve said, the Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, and all we can do is adjust when they do it. Stay tuned.

Petition to stop drive-through voting dismissed

That was quick.

Drive-thru and curbside voting programs in Harris County can continue after a state appeals court Wednesday quickly threw out a last-minute lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party challenging the county’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. The state GOP had filed suit Monday night asking the court to place limits on curbside voting and halt drive-thru voting.

The appellate judges said the party and a voter who filed the suit did so too late, and did not show how they specifically might be injured by the voting practices. The lawsuit was filed just hours before early voting polls opened and more than a month after the Harris County Clerk announced his plan for drive-thru voting.

“The election is currently in progress and the relators delayed filing this mandamus until over a month after learning of the actions of the Harris County Clerk’s Office,” the panel of three judges on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals wrote in their ruling dismissing the case.

A Texas Republican Party spokesperson said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court “to ensure that no illegal votes would be cast and counted in this election.” In an unrelated recent voting lawsuit, the state’s high court ruled against another voting challenge because it was filed too late, saying changes during an ongoing election could cause voter confusion.

See here for the background, and here for the 14th Court’s ruling. It should be noted that the court dismissed the petition “sua sponte”, which is the fancy Latin phrase for “on its own initiative”. In other words, the court didn’t ask for the defendants to submit a response – the petition didn’t meet the bar for having a claim to be decided. That’s a pretty strong statement.

A bit from the ruing makes it clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t just the timing. The first two issues the court addressed were the standing of the plaintiffs to bring this challenge:

To have standing under section 273.061, a party must demonstrate that it “possesses an interest in a conflict distinct from that of the general public, such that the defendant’s actions have caused the plaintiff some particular injury.” In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, orig. proceeding) (quoting Williams v. Lara, 52 S.W.3d 171, 178 (Tex. 2001)).The claimant must show a particularized injury beyond that of the general public. Id. “Our decisions have always required a plaintiff to allege some injury distinct from that sustained by the public at large.” Brown v. Todd, 53 S.W.3d 297, 302 (Tex. 2001). “No Texas court has ever recognized that a plaintiff’s status as a voter, without more, confers standing to challenge the lawfulness of governmental acts.” Id. For example, a voter lacks standing to seek the removal of an ineligible candidate from the ballot because the voter has no special interest. See, e.g., Clifton v. Walters, 308 S.W.3d 94, 99 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2010, pet. denied); Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).

Standing requires “a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court.” Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 154. Texas has adopted the federal courts’ standing doctrine to determine the constitutional jurisdiction of state courts. Id. To maintain standing, petitioners must show: (1) an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent”; (2) that the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s challenged actions; and (3) that it is “‘likely,’ as opposed to merely ‘speculative,’ and that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.’” Id. at 154–55 (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992)).

RELATORS’ FAILURE TO SHOW STANDING

Pichardo argues that he has standing to obtain mandamus relief under Election Code section 273.061 because, unless Hollins is compelled to enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting, Pichardo is at risk of having his vote canceled out by an ineligible vote. But that alleged harm is true of every member of the general public who is registered to vote. Pichardo lacks standing because he has not shown that he has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., Brown, 53 S.W.3d at 302; In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553; In re Pichardo, No. 14-20-00685-CV, 2020 WL 5950178, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 8, 2020, orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The Republican Party of Texas argues that Hollins’s alleged intent to not enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting will harm its mission and purpose of advancing limited government, lower taxes, less spending, and individual liberty and promoting compliance with state election statutes. The Republican Party of Texas lacks standing because it has not shown that it has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553. The Republican Party of Texas cites no authority that supports its standing argument.

In other words, neither the voter they dragged up to be a plaintiff, nor the Republican Party of Texas itself, can claim any injury that a court would recognize. Their complaint basically amounts to “but some people might vote in a way we don’t like”, and the court has no time for that. At least, this court had no time for it. I suppose SCOTX could do something different, but that’s always the risk. The fact that voting has in fact already started should also be a barrier to entry, but again, we’ll see.

Three minor points of note: One, the GOP was represented by our old buddy Andy Taylor – just search the archives for that name, and you’ll see why I’m laughing. Two, this ruling also cited the 2008 lawsuit brought by supporters of then-Sen. Kim Brimer in their attempt to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, before she successfully knocked Brimer out of the Senate. And three, based on that “In re Pichardo” footnote, this particular plaintiff has served that role for whichever Republican group is seeking to stop some form of voting in court before, during this cycle. Put that name on your watch list for the future, these guys get around. The Chron has more.

State GOP files suit to stop curbside voting in Harris County

Honesty, it feels like they’re just trolling now.

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs.

State election law has long allowed voters with medical conditions to vote curbside. After they arrive at a polling location, a ballot is brought outside to them in their vehicle by an election worker. In addition to urging qualified voters to use the curbside option this year, Harris County also opened designated “drive-thru” polling locations for all voters, where poll workers hand people a voting machine through their car window after checking their photo identification.

The state GOP’s lawsuit, filed in a state appeals court in Houston, seeks to halt the drive-thru voting program and limit curbside voting to those who have submitted sworn applications saying they qualify for it. Glenn Smith, a senior strategist with Progress Texas, said Tuesday he could find nothing in the law requiring an application to vote curbside. Texas election law instructs election officers to deliver an on-site curbside ballot if a voter is “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Unless stopped, each of these instances of illegal voting will cast a cloud over the results of the General Election,” the lawsuit states.

Chris Hollins, the Harris County Clerk, said the latest lawsuit is in line with the Republican Party “feverishly” using resources to limit people’s right to vote.

“This lawsuit is not only frivolous, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the differences between curbside voting — for voters with disabilities, including illness — and drive-thru voting, which is available for all voters who want to vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

[…]

The Republicans argue that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn’t enough under state election law to qualify for curbside voting. Their point is bolstered by a May ruling from the all-Republican state Supreme Court which said a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not a disability that qualifies Texans to vote by mail. But Texas law differentiates between mail-in ballots — which must be requested ahead of time through an application under strict qualifications, like a disability — and curbside voting, which is requested onsite.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has repeatedly said this year that those who have symptoms or signs of the new coronavirus should use curbside voting. The office has provided placards for county election officials to use at polling locations that urge curbside voting for sick people or those who can’t enter a polling place without the “likelihood of injuring your health.”

[…]

Voters must provide photo identification, then will be handed a portable voting machine in their car, according to the website. The clerk’s office notes drive-thru voting is open to all voters, as opposed to curbside voting which is applicable for those with a disability.

The lawsuit filed Monday says drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore can’t be available to all voters. The Republican Party also notes that election law states polling places must be located inside a building, and the county’s promotional video for drive-thru voting is in an outdoor parking lot.

I will admit that I have generally not distinguished between curbside and drive-through voting. I’d not given any thought to the difference, or even that there was a difference. I will point out here that this drive-through method was piloted for the primary runoffs, and formally announced as part of the county’s overall election plan in August. I will also note that Bexar County had announced their own plans for drive-though voting even earlier in August. This once again raises the question of “if you’re gonna sue about this, why is it taking you so long?”

The Chron has some more details.

In a petition filed late Monday in Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, the Texas Republican Party contended the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting, including drive-thru voting, to voters who are sick or disabled, or if voting inside the polling location “would create a likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Those provisions do not apply to the coronavirus pandemic, the party argued in its filing.

“Chris Hollins is telling all Harris County residents that they are eligible for curbside voting when he knows that is not the case,” the party said in a statement. “Any voter that does not qualify to vote curbside under narrow statutory language would be voting illegally if allowed to vote drive-through.”

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said county officials are comfortable with the legality of drive-thru voting because they do not consider it to be a form of curbside voting. The drive-thru locations, he noted, are all inside buildings, such as garages and temporary structures, which he said prevents them from being curbside under Texas law.

“We looked at this carefully before we decided to do it and feel that it’s within the boundaries of the law,” Ray said. “It’s disingenuous on their part to try to classify drive-thru as curbside, because that is not what we’re doing.”

This was filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, so I presume it’s a writ of mandamus. (I couldn’t find any filings when I searched the 14th Court website, but maybe I was just searching wrong.) I presume also that the 14th Court is under no obligation to issue a ruling in a timely manner – I’d say sitting on this one, then dismissing it as moot is the fate it deserves, but then I’m both petty and Not A Lawyer, so don’t pay too much attention to that. We all understand what this is about, and we all understand the motivation for it. The courts are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’ll go from there. Let’s not give this any more thought than that.

30 Day 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 1

Time once again to look at campaign finance reports. I don’t usually review the 30-day reports but this is a special year, and there’s a lot of money sloshing around, so let’s keep an eye on it. As before, I will split these into four parts. Part one will be statewide, SBOE, and State Senate, part two will be State House races from the Houston area, part three will be State House races from elsewhere in the state, and part four will be for Democratic incumbents that may be targeted. I’m not going to be doing every race of course, just the ones of interest. January reports for statewide candidates can be found here, January reports for various SBOE and State Senate races can be found here, and the July reports for the candidates in this post are here.

Chrysta Castaneda, RRC
Jim Wright, RRC

Amy Clark Meachum, Supreme Court, Chief Justice
Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Gisela Triana, Supreme Court, Place 8
Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

Kathy Cheng, Supreme Court, Place 6
Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

Staci Williams, Supreme Court, Place 7
Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

Rebecca Bell-Metereau, SBOE5
Lani Popp, SBOE5

Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Will Hickman, SBOE6

Marsha Webster, SBOE10
Tom Maynard, SBOE10

Susan Criss, SD11
Larry Taylor, SD11

Roland Gutierrez, SD19
Pete Flores, SD19


Candidate   Office    Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===========================================================
Castaneda      RRC   310,709   161,145   27,166     103,934
Wright         RRC   243,765   452,473   45,000     169,761

Meachum      SCOTX   103,704    27,920        0     200,072
Hecht        SCOTX   176,761   806,375        0     105,298

Triana       SCOTX    37,075    19,945        0     134,736
Busby        SCOTX   314,946   580,588        0     342,010

Cheng        SCOTX    17,901     5,196   90,174      80,371
Bland        SCOTX   167,487   490,849        0     132,174

Williams     SCOTX   127,667    69,733    1,000      78,572
Boyd         SCOTX   128,500   168,373        0     466,196

BellMetereau SBOE5    63,473    18,316    2,250      66,834
Popp         SBOE5    64,012    22,713   60,000      50,637

Palmer       SBOE6    17,395     8,251        0      12,982
Hickman      SBOE6     2,660       819    2,500       2,887

Webster     SBOE10     4,195     3,200       25       4,523
Maynard     SBOE10     4,332    14,797    4,000         848

Criss         SD11    18,137    29,403        0       5,048
Taylor        SD11    47,775   138,166        0   1,054,841

Gutierrez     SD19   199,270    50,785        0      11,309
Flores        SD19   627,919   531,779        0     606,589

I didn’t have a whole lot to say about these reports last time, and I don’t have much to add now. Chrysta Castaneda raised a few bucks and has done a bit of TV advertising, but there’s not a whole lot you can do statewide with less than a million bucks as an opening bid. She has done well with earned media, and I think Democrats may be more aware of this race than they usually are, which could have an effect on the margins if it keeps the third-party vote level low. To be sure, the Presidential race is by far the single biggest factor here. The hope is that Castaneda can outpace Biden, even by a little, and if so then she just needs it to be close at the top.

The same is true for the Supreme Court, where Dems at least are fired up by the rulings relating to mail ballots. I think the potential for crossovers is lower than in the RRC race, where Jim Wright is so obviously conflicted, but just retaining a sufficient portion of the Presidential vote would mean a lot. I know people like to talk about the lack of straight ticket voting, but 1) these races are all near the top of the ballot, following the three federal contests, and 2) the message about voting out Republicans at all levels has been pounded all over the place. How much will it matter? I have no idea. All this may be little more than a social media mirage. It’s just what I’ve observed.

I am a little surprised that Roland Gutierrez hasn’t raised more money, and it’s equally odd to me that Pete Flores has outspent him by that much. But like everywhere else, the top of the ticket will drive this result more than anything else. In the context of 2016, this was basically a 10-12 point Dem district. Flores has to convince a lot of people to cross over in order to win. That’s the challenge he faces.

More of these to come. Let me know what you think.

Endorsement watch: Judicial races

The Chron endorses two Dem challengers and one Republican incumbent for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Tina Clinton

A court’s legitimacy derives in part from its capacity to inspire trust in the minds of those who live by its rulings. “There cannot be a trust among the African American community that the system is fair when the judges dispensing that justice are all represented by just one group,” Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County district court judge whom we recommend for Place 4, said last month at a virtual forum organized by the Innocence Project of Texas. She was noting that there are currently no Black justices on the court, and just one of nine members is Latino.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also true that in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals, diversity must also include a broader range of ideological perspective and of life experience. That’s because how a judge sees the law — and how he or she applies it to a particular case — is far more complex than sound bites about “activist judges” or labels such as conservative and liberal.

[…]

Place 4, Tina Yoo Clinton (D)
Tina Yoo Clinton, 50, has more than 14 years experience as a judge and 10 more as a prosecutor. She brings a combination of a veteran judge’s experience and the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of a newcomer. It’s exactly the mix the court needs.

For that reason, we recommend her over Justice Kevin Yeary, who has been on the court since 2014.

“Clearly when you look at what is going on in the United States within the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that even though we want justice to be colorblind, it is not colorblind,” Clinton said during last month’s candidate forum.

That’s a starting point that will help shape the discussions among the nine justices in ways that keep fairness at the center of the debate. Matched with her long experience and commitment to follow the law, we believe she will help render justice in which all Texans can have faith.

Place 9, Brandon Birmingham (D)
We recommend voters elect Dallas County criminal district court Judge Brandon Birmingham, 43, in Place 9, even at the high cost of losing Justice David Newell, whose voice on questions of actual innocence has been reasoned and refreshing.

But he adheres to the court’s overall emphasis on textualism, and approaches each case within a narrower view of what justice requires than would his opponent. The court’s nine members urgently need new perspectives, new sets of life experiences, and new vantage points from which to see the law and the facts in order to render decisions that have credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

Birmingham would stretch the boundaries of that debate — and would do so using experience as a judge, a prosecutor and a change agent.

They also endorsed Justice Bert Richardson, who I will agree is a good judge, over challenger Elizabeth Frizell. At least here, the Chron did more than just nod in the direction of increasing the diversity of this court, as they did with the Supreme Court.

In the other judicial races, the Chron endorsed all four Republican incumbents on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, and five Dems and five Republicans (plus one abstention) for the district courts. I’m just going to say this: If there’s one thing we should take away from the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett experiences, it’s that the judiciary is to Republicans (with a huge push from the professional conservative movement) nothing but an expression of political power. Gorsuch was given, and Barrett almost certainly will be given, a lifetime tenure on the US Supreme Court, where they will consistently rule in favor of Republican and conservative positions, because the Republican-held Senate had the power to block Garland and install the other two.

Here in Texas, where we elect judges as part of the regular electoral process, there has been a call to move away from partisan elections of judges and towards some other, as yet undefined system, which may involve appointments or bipartisan panels or who knows what else. This push has emerged and grown as Democrats have begun to assert more political power in Texas – I’ve been documenting it since 2008, when we elected Democratic judges for the first time since the early nineties. What the voters want is more Democratic judges, and so it has become Very Important for the Republicans that still retain full power in this state to make sure they don’t get them.

As a matter of abstract principle, I would agree that we could do a better job picking judges than the current system we have, where judges are voted on by people who mostly have no idea who they are and what they do. I’m sure if we put a few sober and learned types in a room for a few hours, they would emerge with a perfectly fine system for selecting judges on pure merit. But we’ve had this imperfect system for a long time, and when it benefitted the Republicans it was just fine. It certainly benefits them right now, when questions about voting rights are being litigated. If more Democratic judges get elected this cycle, I consider that just to be some balance on the scales. When we get to a point of having solid Democratic majorities on the Supreme Court and the CCA, and there’s a Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then come back with a fully-formed plan for non-partisan meritocratic judicial selections, and we can talk. Until then, I say elect more Democrats, including and especially Democratic judges. Politics has been a key part of this process from the beginning. The fact that the politics are slowly starting to favor the Democrats is not a compelling reason to change that. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Endorsement watch: For (just a little) more diversity

The Chron says a few words about the need to diversify the Supreme Court, then mostly endorses the status quo.

Judge Staci Williams

When talk turns to Texas’ highest civil court — as it must, given voters’ opportunity to select four of the nine justices in the upcoming election — the old frames of left versus right take on entirely new and even hazy meanings.

As an editorial board, we’ve grappled with the consequences of one-party rule in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 26 years. But those concerns are even more relevant when the topic is the Texas Supreme Court, and its criminal law counterpart, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

All 18 justices on these two courts are Republican, and we believe that lack of ideological diversity would do damage to any state, but especially one as big and diverse as Texas. That concern weighed heavy on our minds but still was only one factor in deliberations over which candidates to recommend.

We’re delighted to report that not one of the candidates was unqualified. We faced tough choices in selecting only one for each race. In addition to experience, judicial record, temperament and aptitudes for research, writing and analysis that form the heart of appellate law, we also gave thoughtful consideration to candidates’ ideological and personal backgrounds, including gender, race, ethnicity and life experiences.

What follows is our best advice in each of these four, consequential races. Endorsements in the Court of Criminal Appeals will be published soon.

And then they endorse three of the four Republican incumbents – Chief Justice Nathan Hecht over Judge Amy Clark Meachum, Justice Jane Bland over Kathy Cheng, Justice Brett Busby over Justice Gisela Triana; Judge Staci Williams over Justice Jeff Boyd was the lone exception – with nods to experience and temperament over the other factors. It’s fine to prefer those three incumbents and to value their experience, though I at least would argue that Triana has at least as much experience as the Abbott-appointed Busby, but the expressed concern over “lack of ideological diversity” sounds hollow given the result. The Justices in question may well be sober and experienced and learned, but I doubt anyone would claim they differ in any significant way on their philosophy and jurisprudence. Endorsing more of the same is not a great way to get something different. We’ll see what happens when they review the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

SCOTX hears mail ballot case arguments

Here we are.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county far exceeds what the state Election Code allows, the attorney general’s office argued before the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday.

In oral arguments before the high court, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the part of the Election Code requiring clerks to send applications to any registered voters who request them means the distribution of applications is limited to those voters. Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins, he warned, cannot claim powers the Election Code has not expressly granted him.

“If Hollins’s actions are allowed to proceed, it will fundamentally upset the balance of power between states and counties,” Hawkins said. “That conception of power has existed for a century.”

[…]

Susan Hays, a private attorney representing Harris County, said the purpose of the Election Code is to make voting safe and accessible to all registered Texans. Requiring applications to be sent to voters who request them is a minimum requirement, she argued, not a limit.

“A statute that says we have to give an application to someone if they ask doesn’t prohibit implicitly giving it to people because we think it’s a good management practice and we think it will make this election safe,” Hays said.

The eight justices in attendance peppered both attorneys with questions during their 20-minute arguments.

Responding to a question about whether the county’s plan would be out of step with how other parts of the state are handling mail ballots, Hays said all 254 counties should send mail ballot applications to registered voters. In an amicus brief, the Dallas County clerk argued the same.

Justice Eva Guzman asked Hays if Harris County’s plan would create more opportunities for voter fraud. Hays said it would not, noting that each ballot is reviewed by a bipartisan committee to ensure the signatures on the ballot and application match.

Justice Brett Busby asked Hawkins if the state’s position that clerks only have power explicitly granted by state law would bar them from developing new, innovative ways of providing services to customers.

“This is going to have ramifcations outside this case,” Busby said. “How do we tread that line to ensure clerks can continue to do, as they see it, good customer service?”

Hawkins said clerks would be fine so long as they are able to connect every action to a “specific grant of power” from the Legislature.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any new insights, I still think the state’s arguments are crap, but it’s not up to me. All I ask at this point is a quick decision.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

Hotze’s latest Supreme Court gambit

He has nothing else to do, clearly.

A litigious conservative activist in Houston, the Harris County Republican party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates are asking the Texas Supreme Court to limit in-person and absentee voting options for Harris County voters during the pandemic.

The county, the state’s most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, began letting voters drop off absentee ballots Monday for the Nov. 3 general election at 11 annexes. In line with a directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the county also intends to begin in-person early voting Oct. 13.

Prominent activist Steve Hotze, as well as Wendell Champion, a Republican candidate for Congress; Sharon Hemphill, a Republican candidate for judge; and the local GOP chair, are suing to stop that, arguing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is overreaching the bounds of state election law. They’re asking the state’s highest civil court to order Harris County to not begin early voting until Oct. 19 — the date set by state law that Abbott extended by executive order, citing safety concerns — and not accept absentee ballots delivered in person until Nov. 3.

[…]

The conservative plaintiffs also argue that state law does not allow Hollins to permit voters to drop off their ballots at the 11 sites, a strategy they claim “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud.”

According to the Harris County clerk’s website, voters who complete absentee ballots may drop them off at any of 11 locations during specified hours, including 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the early voting period and on Election Day. Voters can deliver only their own ballots in person, and when they do they must present identification.

As the story notes, this is in addition to the mandamus request to halt the extra week of early voting statewide. I have a hard time imagining even this Supreme Court thinking that the law supports halting the extra week in only one county. The use of County Clerk annexes and locations like NRG Arena as mail ballot dropoff locations has been discussed for weeks and weeks, so you have to wonder why this is just being filed now. (It may be because it wasn’t an issue that could be litigated before now – the legal system can be funny that way.) Hotze of course was also the first to try to stop the sending out of mail ballot applications, for which there should be a SCOTX hearing on Wednesday. The other stuff, I have no idea. There’s nothing to indicate any action from SCOTX on the mandamus to halt the extra week of early voting, but I suppose that could happen out of the blue at any time between now and October 12, so who knows. Hotze is basically Pennywise without the makeup, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTX won’t join him down in the sewer.

Hotze and crew appeal to SCOTX to stop the extra week of early voting

Here we go again.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a lawsuit over his extension of early voting for the November election from prominent members of his own party — including state party Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and members of the Texas Legislature.

In July, Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, Abbott’s intra-party critics say the move defied election law that requires early voting to start on the 17th day before the election.

It is the latest legal challenge to Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded aggressively in dealing with the pandemic.

“Governor Abbott seems to have forgotten that the Texas Constitution is not a document that he consults at his convenience,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is an uninterrupted charter of governmental structure that limits the Governor Abbott’s ability to act as a king.”

The plaintiffs argue Abbott needs to consult the Legislature before making such decisions and that “if ever a special session was justified, now is the time.”

One of the plaintiffs is Steve Hotze, the Houston conservative activist who has launched several lawsuits against Abbott’s coronavirus response that has seen minimal success so far. But in the latest lawsuit, he is joined by not only West and Miller, but also three state senators and four state representatives, as well as the chairman of the Harris County party, Keith Nielsen, and the Republican National Committeeman from Texas, Robin Armstrong.

West, who took over the state party this summer, has openly expressed disagreement with aspects of Abbott’s coronavirus handling, including his statewide mask mandate and the early voting extension. West seemed to telegraph the lawsuit Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would be partnering with Hotze to make election integrity a “top priority.” West said in the same statement that he opposes the “extension of early voting through the decree of a single executive instead of through the legislative process.”

[…]

In addition to making the early voting period longer for the November election, Abbott gave voters more time to turn in their mail-in ballots in person if they choose to do so. Usually those voters are permitted to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s expanded that option to the entire early voting period.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday additionally seeks to stop the extended period for submitting mail ballots in person, also calling the move inconsistent with the election code.

Before we go on, I should note that what was filed was not a lawsuit but a writ of mandamus. Hotze and a smaller crew of jackals had already filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court about a month ago. I presume this writ was filed because they weren’t going to get a ruling in time, and everything is an emergency as far as Hotze is concerned.

The Chron adds some detail.

In the 40-page petition filed Wednesday, the Republicans wrote that the extension was unlawful because the Texas Election Code defines the early voting periods as “the 17th day before election day … through the fourth day before election day,” and the time for in-person submission of mail-in ballots as “only while the polls are open on election day.” The petition seeks to force Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to stick to the timelines in the law.

Hotze has filed a number of lawsuits aimed at Abbott’s COVID-19 emergency orders; in the early voting suit, he again alleges that Abbott does not have the authority, even during a disaster, to suspend laws through executive order. Instead, he says, Abbott should have convened the Legislature.

“If ever a special session was justified, now is the time,” the petition states. “Abbott’s Executive Orders are unprecedented and have had life and death implications, destroyed small businesses and family’s livelihoods, have had a crippling effect on every single community, and now have the ability to impact local, state and national elections. As long as this Court allows it to occur, one person will continue to unilaterally make these decisions under the guise of an unconstitutional statute.”

The lawmakers involved in the suit are state Sens. Charles Perry, Donna Campbell and Pat Fallon and state Reps. Bill Zedler, Cecil Bell, Jr., Steve Toth and Dan Flynn. Additional relators include former state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Rick Green and Molly White; Harris County Republican Party Chair Keith Nielson; and several other candidates and Republican group leaders.

This story notes the earlier lawsuit. Of interest is the larger group of legislators that have joined in, which distinguishes this action from earlier Hotze/Woodfill joints. Perhaps the election of Allen West, who is as bananas as Hotze, has lent an imprimatur of establishment approval to this kind of rogue action. That said, this is the Hotze clown car we’re talking about, so of course there’s some unintentional comedy involved:

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

Anyway. You know my opinion on all this – there are some legitimate questions buried under the mountains of palaver, but they are being asked by the worst possible people. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the very nature of our biennial legislature, which is not paid as an occupation but as a temp gig, makes this claim about calling special sessions impossible. It’s just not something that the system is designed to accommodate. My guess is that SCOTX will give this the same reception as they’ve given all of Hotze’s other writs and motions during the COVID times, but you just never know. And I can’t wait to see how Ken Paxton responds to this.

On a side note, this comes as Steve Toth, yet another froth-at-the-mouth type, officially announced that he is unfriending Abbott, which by itself isn’t that interesting but lends some fuel to the speculation that Abbott is going to get a challenger from the far wingnut right in 2022. All I can say to that is that we damn well better have a good candidate ready and waiting for whoever survives that mud fight.

A matter of timing

That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.

The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.

[…]

Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.

“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”

[…]

In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.

Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.

First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.

The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.

We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.

I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).

Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.

The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.

Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.

As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

The Green Party owes Ken Paxton a thank-you note

He did them a solid, that’s for sure.

Turns out it is easy being Green

In the legal fight to exclude minor party candidates from the November ballot, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton took a flexible view of time and deadlines.

After the Texas GOP filed suit Aug. 21 to remove 44 Libertarians from the ballot for failure to pay a required candidate filing fee, Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court that there was plenty of time to pursue the challenge.

This week, however, Paxton told the same court that a Democratic bid to oust three Green Party candidates — filed four days before the unsuccessful GOP challenge — was begun much too late and needed to be overturned.

“The (Democrats’) dilatory conduct and unjustified delay in seeking relief imposed an undue burden on the Green Party officials,” Paxton told the court in a brief filed Monday.

[…]

[F]acing an Aug. 21 deadline to declare candidates ineligible, Democrats sued Aug. 17 to strike three Greens running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Railroad Commission.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals gave the Greens less than 48 hours to respond, then issued an Aug. 19 order declaring the three Green Party candidates ineligible for failure to pay the filing fee. The 2-1 ruling had two Democrats in the majority and one Republican dissenting.

The ruling drew the notice of Republican Party leaders, who quickly demanded that Libertarian leaders drop a long list of candidates for the same reason.

When those demands were rejected, Republican organizations and candidates asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to follow the precedent set in the Democratic challenge and order the Libertarians removed from the ballot.

But the GOP filed its challenge on Aug. 21, the deadline to declare candidates ineligible, and the appeals court tossed it out, ruling that there wasn’t time to hear from all parties and gather the necessary information before the deadline expired.

The GOP turned to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that instead of challenging candidate eligibility under an expired deadline, it was challenging the Libertarians’ candidate applications as improper — giving them until Sept. 18 to seek court intervention.

Paxton, in a letter brief to the Supreme Court, agreed with the GOP interpretation of state election law.

“Under Texas law, there is still time for this Court to compel compliance,” Paxton told the court on Sept. 4.

The all-Republican Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Sept. 5 that the GOP and Paxton were looking at the wrong section of the Election Code on deadlines. The court concluded that the Libertarians could not be removed from the ballot because the GOP challenge was filed too late.

[…]

Then on Friday, the Green Party asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its three candidates, arguing that like the GOP, the Democrats relied on the wrong part of the Election Code, rendering their challenge void as well.

The court asked Paxton’s office for its opinion.

In Monday’s response, filed 10 days after arguing that the GOP had not acted too late in challenging Libertarian opponents, Paxton urged the court to reinstate the Green candidates because the Democrats waited too long to act and because the 3rd Court of Appeals engaged in a rushed process that didn’t give the Greens, other political parties and other candidates time to weigh in.

“The 3rd Court abused its discretion,” Paxton wrote.

The Supreme Court’s one-paragraph order to reinstate the Green candidates did not explain the court’s rationale.

See here for the background. We expect SCOTX to publish its opinion on this ruling today, so we may get some idea if it’s all a bunch of sophistry or if they can make a principled argument that the Greens were deprived of their right to respond to the Dems’ legal action in a timely manner, which was a part of the ruling against the GOP in the Libertarian purge attempt. That Ken Paxton was willing to be morally and conveniently flexible on the subject should come as no surprise, given everything we know about him and his character. The Republican Party of Texas has a longstanding willingness to help the Greens whenever they think it might benefit them. This time that support came from an elected official instead of a deep-pocketed donor. Whatever works.

There was a debate in the comments of the last post about ranked choice voting (RCV) being a solution to this kind of legal gamesmanship. The theory is that since the people who voted Green or Libertarian (or independent, or whatever else may have been on the ballot) would still be able to express their electoral support for whichever major party candidate they like as their backup selection, which in turn would reduce the incentive for the major parties to bump them off the ballot. The logic has merit, though the lack of RCV around the country means there’s no data to test that hypothesis.

In this case, the argument that had been made by both the Ds and the Rs is that the other parties’ candidates had violated the law by not paying the newly-mandated filing fees – you may note, the Dems did not challenge the three Greens who did pay their filing fees, just the three candidates who had not – and there is a long history of candidates being challenged because they failed to meet eligibility requirements. If the filing fee law continues to survive the lawsuits against it, and there are Greens and Libertarians who refuse to comply with it in 2022, I would fully expect them to be taken to court again, surely in a more expeditious fashion, and I would expect that even in an RCV-enabled world. This is a basic tool in the political toolbox, one that I would not expect to go away if the method of determining the winner of an election changes. That too is a testable question, and perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for it. For now, that’s how I see it.