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Travis County

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

The need for voter registration never ends

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

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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


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

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

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Voting centers everywhere

In Dallas:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

In San Antonio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

We talk once again about straight ticket voting

We have a new study, so we have a new reason.

The state’s decision to kill straight-ticket voting could cut turnout in down-ballot races in the 2020 elections — even if more voters show up to the polls.

Sure, those additional voters will cast ballots for president and U.S. Senate. But voter interest and knowledge gets thinner and thinner as the ballots go on and on.

Without straight-ticket voting — where voters register support for all of their parties’ candidates with a single vote — down-ballot candidates will have to win with the support of the relatively few voters who make it past the marquee contests.

Two-thirds of Texans voted straight ticket in 2018. In 2020, candidates for offices like constable and justice of the peace will need all the help they can get from friends and family; it won’t be enough to rely on the straight-ticket voters.

In particular, Democratic candidates depending on a growing base of voters may suffer, according to a study done by the Austin Community College Center for Public Policy and Political Studies.

“Most analyses of the election contend that straight-ticket voting helped the Democratic Party candidates in certain types of counties — metropolitan and some suburbs,” authors Stefan Haag and Peck Young wrote. “And we agree that the increased competitiveness of Democrats in many counties was abetted by straight-ticket voting.”

It’s not so much that Democrats were depending on straight tickets for their strength; it’s that strong candidates at the top of the ticket — like Democrat Beto O’Rourke — were making it easier for the rest of the party’s candidates to win some votes.

[…]

“The greatest effect of the elimination of straight-ticket voting will probably not be the elimination of Texans voting for all candidates of one political party — the essence of straight-ticket voting,” the two wrote. “The effect will be that people will spend more time in the voting booth.”

You can see the study here, and you can read everything I’ve had to say on the topic here. The authors get some things right, in my opinion, including the conclusion that I quoted at the end there, but I’m not convinced yet that there will be a huge effect on downballot races. I’m especially not convinced that this is going to help Republicans win judicial races in Harris County again. The Harris County GOP has much bigger problems than that.

The main effect is to make voting take longer, which (it is hoped by the GOP) will not only make some (Democratic) people skip some races, but will also make lines longer and thus discourage some (Democratic) people from getting in to vote at all. There are other techniques they are employing towards this end as well.

The Texas Legislature never seems to pass up a chance to make voting harder, scarier, or more confusing. True to form, Texas was one of several states this year that restricted—rather than expanded—access to the polls.

HB 1888, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law in June, goes into effect this week, effectively banning the use of mobile polling places, a strategy adopted by some counties to facilitate early voting in communities where people may have a harder time getting to a polling site. Travis County, for instance, has for the past several years operated dozens of temporary polling places at various times during the state’s two-week early voting window, opening up temporary sites at colleges, rural community centers, and senior living facilities. More than 28,000 people voted at those rotating polling sites last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election.

However, since the county can’t afford to turn all of those temporary polling places into permanent early voting sites, as required by HB 1888, some areas accustomed to having early voting won’t get it during the 2020 election, according to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. “We’re struggling with what to do for some of these communities now,” DeBeauvoir told the Observer. “We won’t be able to open polling places that some people have gotten used to.”

It’s all of our responsibility to find ways to keep lines manageable and give everyone the best chance to vote in a timely manner. A couple of suggestions come to mind:

1. If you are 65 years old, or will be by Election Day, you are eligible to vote by mail. Take advantage of it.

2. The best days to vote early are Tuesday through Friday of the first week of early voting, and the Monday and Tuesday of the second week. If you’ve made it to Thursday of the second week of early voting, go ahead and wait till Election Day. Those last two days of early voting, especially the very last day, are by far the busiest. Don’t make it more so.

3. If you really want to go the (literal) extra mile, find the lower-volume early voting locations and vote at one of them. You can look back at my daily EV reports to see which places to seek out. Vote first thing in the morning (7 AM during the second week), later in the morning (like between 9:30 and 11), or early afternoon (say between 1:30 and 3) to avoid the commute and lunchtime crowds.

4. If you have the time, sign up with your county to be an election judge, so that if they do want to open another EV location, they will have the staff for it.

Every little bit helps. When we finally take over state government, we can work on actually fixing this. Until then, do what we can to not make things worse.

Boosting student turnout at UT

Cool story.

Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not.

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

[…]

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters.

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output.

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.”

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. As the story notes, TX Votes was helped by having a great working relationship with Travis County elected officials, in particular the two that are directly involved with elections, the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor. Thanks to the 2018 election, we now have a County Clerk in Harris County that is invested in helping people vote – the recent announcement about early voting centers coming to the UH and TSU campuses being a prime example of this – so now we also have an opportunity to follow TX Votes’ example. Let’s see if we can get those two added to the Best Colleges for Student Voting list next year. In the meantime, you can follow TX Votes on Facebook and Twitter.

McCaul’s hustle

Turns out, running for re-election is hard work.

Rep. Mike McCaul

Rep. Michael McCaul does not have to be here, at Carl’s BBQ on the side of a highway, in a wood-paneled backroom, seated at a bare table in front of a stuffed, life-size buck whose antlers hold a sign saying, “NEVER moon a werewolf.”

He doesn’t have to drive east two and a half hours from his home in Austin to find brisket this good, but here is where his voters are. And after the last election, his worst in his 15-year political career, the Republican congressman decided he needs to campaign for them like never before.

McCaul could be forgiven for retiring. In the past four weeks, four of his fellow Texas Republican colleagues have done so — a political phenomenon nicknamed “Texodus” — including two members who represent suburban districts similar to McCaul’s. The Democrats flipped the House in 2018, suddenly making life miserable for GOP members now in the minority, and targeted half a dozen of the members of Congress in Texas, including him. To win, McCaul has to, for the first time, actually try; His once-safe district stretching from Austin to Houston is changing faster than he expected, threatening to throw him out.

But when faced with fight or flight, McCaul chose the former. He changed his campaign staff, including hiring Corry Bliss, who led the top Republican-affiliated super PAC for House races in 2018, as a general consultant. Last quarter, McCaul claimed a personal fundraising record. His team boasted the earliest field program of any incumbent Republican in America, one it says has already knocked on 10,000 doors. In the past week, McCaul met with local chamber of commerce officials, AARP constituents and local journalists. He toured car dealerships. He led a consortium on how to address human trafficking. And he hit three barbecue joints in three days.

“I decided if I’m going to do this again, I’m going to work it hard, maybe harder than I ever have,” McCaul told CNN.

In a 25-minute interview this week, McCaul blamed the Texas Republicans’ drubbing last cycle “in large part” to the top of the ticket. GOP Sen. Ted Cruz lost the big four metropolitan regions — “something no top-of-the-ticket Republican nominee had done since Barry Goldwater in 1964,” who faced native son and President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to a University of Houston study. McCaul noted that Cruz, who was “not as likeable” and unable to “fully” energize his party’s base voters, lost his district to then-Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who created a following McCaul called “Beto-mania.” (A source close to the Cruz operation responded that McCaul raised more than triple the amount of his Democratic opponent and still “almost lost.”)

[…]

In recent years, the populations of Latinos, African Americans and Asians in McCaul’s district have boomed. Between 2012 and 2017, Latinos grew from 26% to 29% of the population as over 60,000 moved there or were born, according to American Community Survey figures pointed out by Potter. The white population increased but more slowly than other races, and shrunk as a percentage of the district from 58% to 52%.

Rep. Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, said the population explosion could yield the state two or three more congressional seats after the next census. But he said that rapid demographic change was just one reason why these suburban seats have become competitive after so long, saying the voters “have really had enough of this President — and Republicans not pushing back against a lot of what they see as wrong for the country.”

Siegel, physician Dr. Pritesh Gandhi and Shannon Hutcheson, a lawyer whose clients include Planned Parenthood, are all vying to be the Democratic nominee to take on McCaul. Democrats are confident that the mix of Trump at the top of the ticket, fundamental demographic changes and a message centering on health care and protecting the Affordable Care Act will flip the seat.

The Democrats also don’t think McCaul is well-known even after winning eight terms in office and call his claims of a reinvigorated field campaign overblown. According to a copy of McCaul’s schedule of the past two weeks obtained by CNN, the congressman had one door-knocking event but canceled it. When CNN toured the block, which included a home hoisting a Trump flag out front, a couple potential voters said they didn’t recognize McCaul’s name, but they would vote for him so long that he was Republican.

I love both the faux-blockwalking story and the Ted Cruz shade. Who says politics is boring? The story is cool and all, but I’m going to boil this all down to a couple of tables:


County    McCaul   Cadien     Diff
==================================
Harris    68,540   22,459   46,081
Travis    37,493   51,400  -13,907
Others    53,750   21,851   31,899

Total    159,783   95,710   64,073

County    McCaul   Siegel     Diff
==================================
Harris    71,717   40,820   30,897
Travis    30,857   80,864  -50,007
Others    54,592   22,350   32,242

Total    157,166  144,034   13,132

Mike McCaul got slightly fewer votes in 2018 than he did in 2012, while Mike Siegel got nearly 50K more votes than Tawana Cadien did. All of the improvement in Siegel’s vote totals came from Harris and Travis counties. The small rural counties in between produced essentially the same totals and margins each year. If Dems can squeeze a bit more out of the two big counties (*), they can win this seat. As before, that’s going to be a combination of relentless voter registration and GOTV, which I can guarantee will involve actual blockwalking. The path forward is clear.

(*) For what it’s worth, Siegel improved slightly on Cadien’s performance in Bastrop County, reducing the margin there from 2,353 for McCaul in 2012 to 1,691. It’s worth expending some effort there, in part because every vote will matter and in part because I at least still have hope that Bastrop will start to go the way of Hays County, but the fat part of the target remains the two biggest counties.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

Raising money to register Republicans

Just keeping an eye on things.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A new super PAC focused on registering new Republican voters in Texas has raised nearly $10 million from some of the state’s biggest GOP donors, according to its first report to the Federal Election Commission.

Filed early Wednesday morning, the disclosure shows that the political action committee, Engage Texas, took in $9.6 million between when it registered with the FEC in mid-April and when the reporting period ended June 30. It spent $336,000 and has $9.3 million in the bank.

“This significant investment in resources will help us reach Texans in every corner of the state to educate them about Texas’ successful, conservative principles and engage them in the political process,” Engage Texas Chairman Mano de Ayala said in a statement.

Engage Texas launched in mid-June with the promise of signing up and turning out hundreds of thousands of new GOP voters to help keep the state red in 2020. The super PAC is led by Chris Young, a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee.

[…]

It appears Engage Texas has wasted little time getting to work, reporting 17 people on payroll through June in addition to Young. One of them is Kristy Wilkinson, who was deputy campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid last year and previously the Republican National Committee’s Texas state director.

The group says it has already opened offices in Austin, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It also has dispatched organizers to begin work in Bell, Blanco, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Fort Bend, Harris, Hays, Lampasas, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson counties.

See here for the background. This to me falls somewhere in between “legitimate threat to Democratic efforts in 2020” and “awesome get-rich-quick scheme for Republican consultants”, I just don’t know exactly where yet. I don’t think a lack of registered voters has been the issue for Republicans in the last couple of elections, but if this is more of a turnout effort then I think they could have a real effect. It would have been a much bigger disaster for them in 2018 if they hadn’t had near-Presidential levels of turnout on their side. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on but to be determined how big a deal this is.

It’s up to cities to make the Census work

The Lege shirked its duty, so this is what’s left.

Across the country, states are spending millions on making sure they get a better headcount of their residents. For example, California officials announced they are investing as much as $154 million in the 2020 census.

But not all states are making investments or even coming up with statewide plans to improve the count.

This year, Texas lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have created a statewide effort aimed at making sure all Texans are counted. Measures that would have ensured millions of dollars in funding for the census in Texas also failed.

“California is eating our lunch on the census,” says Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “And what’s that going to mean is more representation and more dollars for California than Texas.”

Beeson said this is particularly concerning because the state’s population has continued to explode. In fact, many of the country’s fastest growing cities are in the Lone Star State.

By some estimates, Texas is set to gain three to four congressional seats after the census. But that’s only if there’s an accurate count, Beeson says.

“Texas is already at a high risk of an undercount,” she says. “That is because we have a higher percentage of what are considered hard to count populations.”

[…]

In the absence of state action, though, local officials in Texas say it’s up to them now to make sure people are getting counted.

“So much in the state of Texas relies on local government stepping up,” says Bruce Elfant, the tax assessor and voter registrar for Travis County here in Austin.

Elfant is a member of the city’s Complete Count Committee, which is a city-led group focused just on improving the census in Austin.

“This is a time where local government is going to have to step up again and I am really proud of what we have here in Travis County,” he says.

Elfant says school districts and other municipal government — as well as local businesses — plan to pitch in. In fact, he says he the city plans to create a fund for the census. He says that fund will largely rely on money from the private sector.

And nonprofits say they are also gearing up to fill the gap left by state inaction, says Stephanie Swanson with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas.

“We realized that basically is going to be up to us,” she says. “We will have to rely on our cities and it will also fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and the community to get out the count.”

See here for the background. You’d think with the way our state leaders hate California that they wouldn’t want to let the Golden State outshine us like this, but here we are. Don’t ask me to explain what Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are thinking, that way madness lies. The city of Houston is doing its part. I just hope this collective effort is enough. The Chron has more.

Our measles risk

Do I spend too much time worrying about stuff like this, or do I not spend enough time on it?

Harris County is one of the nation’s most vulnerable counties to a measles outbreak, according to a new study based on international travel and the prevalence of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, ranks Harris County as the county 9th most at risk of having clusters of people contract measles, the highly contagious, potentially fatal virus that has re-emerged as a public health threat after having been largely eradicated at the turn of the century. Tarrant and Travis counties also are at high risk of an outbreak, according to the study.

“Texas’ showing is on par with the other 16 states that allow vaccine exemptions for conscientious or personal reasons,” said Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Texas Austin professor and the study’s lead author. “You can expect the state, like other parts of the nation, to see more cases.”

Sarkar said Harris County’s vulnerability is mostly the result of its considerable international travel. The county’s number of non-medical vaccine exemptions was not among the state’s highest in a Texas health department report released earlier this week.

[…]

The new study was conducted by Sarkar and a Johns Hopkins University researcher using risk assessment models similar to one they used to correctly predict that Zika, the mosquito-born virus that can cause serious birth defects, would first affect Texas and Florida after it began spreading from the Southern Hemisphere midway through this decade. It also correctly predicted areas already experiencing measles outbreaks, such as Washington, Oregon and New York.

The authors didn’t consider the locations of measles cases already recorded. Instead, they looked at non-medical vaccine exemptions, international air travel and the incidence of measles in countries from which people came to the United States, particularly India, China, Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Philippines and Thailand. In all, some 112,000 people have been diagnosed with measles outside the U.S. this year, according to the World Health Organization.

Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of infectious disease and vaccine advocate, called the new study an advance over research he published last year that identified “15 hotspots” of vaccine exemptions among a subset of states. Harris County ranked seventh on that list.

“I think this is a nice refinement on our first attempt,” said Hotez. “It confirms the high risk of Texas counties to measles, something that we’ll need to consider seriously when planning for epidemics.”

It’s not clear what if anything can be done to mitigate this particular risk, so I’m back to wondering how much I should worry about it. Keep working to close the gap in vaccination rates, I guess. It annoys the crap out of me that we have to worry about this sort of thing in 2019, but here we are.

Austin’s scooter study

Be careful riding these things, and for crying out loud wear a helmet.

A first-of-its-kind study on injuries related to dockless electric scooters found that most incidents were preventable, and now Austin city officials are hoping to use their findings to inform future policy.

The city’s health and transportation departments collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review 271 reports of possible scooter related injuries filed from Sept. 5 to Nov. 30, 2018. The study, however, only confirmed 190 cases involved scooter riders, one involved a pedestrian and one involved a cyclist. The rest were determined to be hurt while riding a gas-powered scooter, moped or device that uses three wheels, or didn’t involve a device at all, said Jeff Taylor, an Austin Public Health epidemiologist.

“If anything, this study also helped prove out that, that we need to be more precise in our language when we’re recording data that a scooter is not just a scooter. We mean something very specific,” Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said Thursday.

The CDC said the study found “a high proportion of e-scooter related injuries involved potentially preventable risk factors, such as lack of helmet use or motor vehicle interaction.” City officials also said almost half the head injuries documented could have been prevented.

The study drew data from Austin-Travis County EMS incident reports and information from nine area hospitals, as well as from interviews with some who were injured. Taylor said it was important to interview the injured so the data could be more specific.

Among the findings:

• 20 people for every 100,000 scooter trips taken were injured, and most were first-time riders.

• 48% were between 18 and 29 years old. Researchers recommend targeting educational materials to that age group going forward.

• 39% of injuries happened between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• 29% told researchers they had been drinking before they rode.

• Only one person of the 190 riders hurt was wearing a helmet.

• More than half of the riders were injured in the street and a third were hurt while riding on the sidewalk.

• More than a third said speed contributed to them crashing.

Having more accurate data about the scooters and how they’re affecting Austin residents could help inform policy discussions in the future, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director for Dell Seton Medical Center. The hospital does not have a uniform way to record the number and type of scooter injuries coming into the emergency room, he said.

[…]

During a period comparable to the one the CDC studied — four months in 2018, between May 7 and Sept. 6 — the Texas Department of Transportation found that in Austin 1,945 people were injured in a vehicle and eight were killed; 105 were injured on motorcycles and five were killed; 60 were hurt using bicycles. Scooter injuries during that time tallied 28, according to the city of Austin.

Lessening the number of injuries related to scooters could start with messaging and education, Ziebell said. Patients have told him they thought hopping on a scooter would be a quick, fun thing, but they end up hitting a pebble and crashing.

“I still hear patients who come in and say, ‘I had no idea,’ ” he said. His patients range in age from their 20s to 70s.

See here for the background. I don’t know why there’s such a wide disparity between the CDC and TxDOT studies in terms of the number of scooter-related injuries over similar time spans. My guess is that only a fraction of scooter injuries in the latter period were reported to TxDOT. Be that as it may, while the scooters caused their share of (I daresay mostly preventable) mayhem, they’re a drop in the bucket next to motor vehicles. Let’s do what we can to make scooters safer, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Mother Jones has more.

Precinct analysis: 2018 SBOE

There are 15 State Board of Education positions, currently divided 10 GOP to 5 Dem. They’re bigger than State Senate and Congressional districts but no one raises any money for them so they’re basically decided by partisan turnout. As with State Senate districts they were not for the most part drawn to be competitive – more like “these are yours and these are mine”. And yet, here we are:


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
SB2    53.6%   51.9%   45.3%   50.4%   51.2%   51.1%   49.8%
SB5       NA   54.8%   48.0%   51.8%   53.0%   52.2%   48.9%
SB6       NA   51.5%   44.7%   49.5%   50.3%   49.5%   45.0%
SB10      NA   50.0%   43.7%   47.8%   48.4%   47.5%   45.0%
SB12   47.9%   51.5%   43.7%   48.5%   49.6%   48.1%   44.9%

SBOE2 is the one Democrat-held district in the table above. We’ll need to keep an eye on it during the 2021 redistricting process. SBOE districts were not part of any redistricting litigation in past cycles, but with three competitive seats up for grabs in 2020, which would swing control of the SBOE if Dems sweep them, I have to assume this will get a bit more focus next time around.

SBOE5 was on my radar before the 2016 election. It was carried by Hillary Clinton and is currently held by true believer wingnut Ken Mercer, so flipping it is both well within reach and a nice prize to have. SBOE6 shifted quite a bit from 2012 to 2016, and even more from 2016 to 2018. It’s all within Harris County and overlaps a lot of the turf that moved in a blue direction. As we’ve discussed before, this is coming from people who used to vote Republican turning away from the Trump Party at least as much as it is from new and newly-activated Democrats. That will be key to taking it over in 2020, as the gap in absolute numbers is just too big to overcome on turnout alone. Dems have an announced candidate for SBOE6 in Michelle Palmer; I’m not aware of candidates for other SBOE slots yet.

SBOE10 will be the toughest nut to crack. It gets about two-thirds of its vote from Travis and Williamson Counties, with about half of the remainder in Bell County. Running up the score in Travis, and continuing the red-to-blue transformation of Williamson will be key to putting this district in play, but all those small rural districts combine to give the Republicans an advantage that won’t be easily overcome. I feel like we can win districts 2 and 5 with Trump still winning statewide, but we’ll need a Democratic majority statewide for 10 to truly be in play. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that.

UPDATE Former HCDE Trustee Debra Kerner has informed me that she also plans to seek this seat.

SOS screws up again

Are you kidding me?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The list of missteps in the Texas secretary of state’s review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens grew again Monday, when the office inadvertently added additional people to its already flawed list of voters flagged for citizenship checks.

Blaming a vendor for the mix-up, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office confirmed new names were sent to certain counties for possible investigation because of a technical error. The mistake occurred while state election officials were analyzing new data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

As with the state’s initial review of previous years’ data, the secretary of state obtained a list of individuals who had visited DPS offices during January and February and indicated they were not U.S. citizens. The goal was to match those names with individuals on the state’s voter rolls and eventually send that list of names to counties for possible investigations.

But the secretary of state’s office was not ready to send out those lists when some counties received them Monday.

“Just like we told the counties and the court last week, this list maintenance process is still on pause,” said the office’s spokesman, Sam Taylor. “The test data that some counties had mistakenly received earlier today was the result of an issue with our vendor, which we immediately addressed with our vendor and the counties.”

[…]

Two counties confirmed to The Texas Tribune they had received the test dataset, which appeared to be riddled with the same errors in the state’s original list. Travis County received 146 names on Monday, but a “substantial number” had proved their citizenship when they registered to vote at DPS, said Bruce Elfant, who oversees the voter rolls in Travis County.

Travis County officials did not finish reviewing the Monday list because they got a call from the secretary of state’s office indicating it was sent by mistake.

“They said they sent the list in error and that we should disregard it,” Elfant said.

Williamson County also received a list Monday, only to be later told that “it was a mistake that shouldn’t have gone out,” said Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator.

Late on Monday, Keith Ingram — the chief of the secretary of state’s elections division — emailed county election officials asking them to “completely disregard the file” they received Monday.

The secretary of state’s mistake comes the same day lawyers with the attorney general’s office indicated in federal court that the secretary of state’s office was still working on the process for sending out the monthly lists.

See here for the whole saga. At least there’s a new villain for David Whitley’s apologists to blame. I don’t even know what else there is to say about this, but I will presume that Whitley’s charm offensive on Senate Democrats is going swell.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

How Dems took Hays County

Three cheers for Texas State University.

As the dust settles after last week’s election, the political identity of Hays County hangs in the balance: Is it red or blue?

The rapidly growing Central Texas suburban county — Texas’ 22nd-largest by registered voters – hadn’t voted for a Democrat at the top of the ticket since 1992. In this year’s general election, however, it gave U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, a 15-point edge over Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. It was the first time in 13 general elections that the county flipped, even though it has become increasingly blue in recent elections.

What exactly fueled the flip is still unknown – and it’s most likely due to a slate of factors – but University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the “off-the-charts-big” student turnout at Texas State University played a big role.

Turnout was so large during early voting that students reported waiting in lines for more than an hour. After the Texas Civil Rights Project threatened to sue the county amid allegations that it was suppressing the college student vote, Hays County commissioners extended early voting on the Texas State campus and created an additional Election Day voting site.

Hays County election data indicates that Texas State students took advantage of the extended voting opportunities. The 334th precinct, which includes the on-campus LBJ Student Center voting location, saw the largest increase in voters from 2014 to 2018 of any precinct in Hays County. A total of 1,942 voters cast their ballots this election. That’s more than five times the 373 voters who cast their ballots in the 334th precinct in 2014, and significantly higher than the 1,406 voters who cast their ballots in that precinct in 2016, a presidential election year.

[…]

But in a county where more than 80,000 voters cast ballots this past election, experts say there are factors other than a robust young voter turnout that contributed to the flip.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said that Hays County was not as red as other parts of the state heading into the election, but he said it turned blue “much more abruptly than other counties.”

He chalks up the the switch, in part, to poor performances by statewide Republican candidates.

“Statewide Republicans were down across the board due to the unpopularity of Donald Trump and the popularity of Beto O’Rourke,” Jones said.

Republican incumbents like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller faced strong challenges from their Democratic opponents as votes from across the state poured in on election night, even as Hays County handed double-digit advantages to their Democratic challengers.

Jones also said that Hays County may have flipped this election because of the “Austin creep.”

“Metro Austin” — known for its liberal politics — “is increasingly moving north into Williamson County and south into Hays County because home prices in Austin are rising,” Jones said. “You’re getting more people who look, act, think and feel like Austin residents who move across the Hays County line.”

See here for some background. While it’s clear that Texas State students turned out in force, the magnitude of the Dems’ win in Hays County leads me more towards the “Austin creep” theory. It’s basically the same thing as what we’ve seen in Fort Bend and Collin/Denton, as voters from the nearby large urban county have been part of the population growth there. What I’d really like to see is a comparison of Hays County, which borders Travis to the southwest on I-35, and Bastrop County, which borders Travis to the southeast where US290 and SH71 go and where Ted Cruz increased his margin from 2012 to 2018 by a bit. Bastrop is clearly more rural than Hays and I’m sure that has a lot to do with it, but there’s also a lot of new development near the border with Travis, and it seems to me there’s a fair amount of “spillover” population as well. Does that part of Bastrop vote more like Travis, or is there a clear demarcation? The geography may also make a difference – the southwest part of Harris County that abuts Fort Bend is Democratic, but the south/southeast part of Harris that borders Galveston County is not, and I believe that has contributed to Galveston County getting redder. Maybe there’s a similar effect for Hays and Bastrop? I’m just speculating. Anyway, that’s another question I’d like to see explored. In the meantime, kudos to everyone who worked to make Hays County blue this year.

The changing tides in Central Texas

From the Statesman:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Six Democrats came within 5 points or fewer in six Texas races, including three districts in Central Texas where Republicans traditionally win easily.

Democrats now hold 13 of 36 Texas congressional seats.

“This is about persistence. This is about a long-term strategy. We did not make it in those races now, but we are further along than ever before,” Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee chairman, told reporters after the election.

Perez, political experts and several Texas Democratic congressional candidates credited Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke for energizing the electorate and driving up turnout. Whether O’Rourke will be on the ballot again in 2020 could affect outcomes down the ballot.

O’Rourke “inspired so many young people and new voters and established a baseline that is far higher,” Perez said.

O’Rourke, who lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, by 2.6 percentage points, is said to be pondering a run for president (along with as many as three dozen other Democrats), but has told his inner circle he is not tempted to run again for the Senate in 2020, when U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is up for re-election.

“Is Beto on the ballot for Senate or president?” Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said of 2020. “That’s a major question. That improves prospects for Democrats.”

But Kopser and other Democrats said there was more going on than an appealing candidate at the top of the ticket boosting down-ballot candidates with him.

“The Beto bump was very real, but I believe out of all the districts of the 36 congressional districts in Texas, we not only benefited from the Beto bump, but we added to it,” said Kopser, who ran in the 21st Congressional District, represented for three decades by retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. The district includes liberal enclaves of Central and South Austin, as well as parts of San Antonio and a swath of the deeply conservative Hill Country.

Kopser, an Army veteran who appealed to some GOP voters as a centrist who voted for Ronald Reagan, garnered 37,000 more votes than the district’s Democratic candidate in 2016, narrowing a 73,000-vote gap to less than 10,000. He lost by 2.8 points.

[…]

“What made the race so close was the fact that for too long people here in this district have only been presented with one real option. I grew up here, so I understand the values of this district and ran my campaign with an intentional effort to connect with voters in a transparent way,” Hegar said in emailed answers to questions from the American-Statesman. “We closed the gap by talking to people and being available to them for honest, transparent conversations, which is not something we’re accustomed to here.”

She said O’Rourke helped her campaign and she helped his: “We turned out voters who cast their ballots for him, and vice versa.”

“I am not ruling out running in 2020, and I do have several options that I’m weighing at the moment. I’m actively considering the ways in which I can best continue serving my country,” Hegar said.

[…]

Perhaps the biggest Election Day surprise was U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul’s close call in the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Lake Travis to the Houston suburbs.

McCaul, R-Austin, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, had skated to re-election by 18.9 points two years ago but this time won by just 4 points over Mike Siegel, a first-time candidate who was on leave from his job as an attorney for the city of Austin. McCaul won just 26.9 percent of the vote in Travis County.

“I think it was multilayered,” Siegel said of the reasons for his strong performance. “I raised more than $500,000. There were changing demographics with 25 percent of the district in Austin and Travis County.”

And he suggested that McCaul wasn’t used to competition: “There hadn’t been a substantial challenge since 2008.”

“The Beto effect,” he said, “was that excitement level he brought to the campaign. He definitely was a significant factor.”

“I’m very open to running again,” Siegel said. “I’m back at City Hall, and a lot of people are reaching out to me, encouraging me to run again.”

Even though she lost by nine, I’d include Julie Oliver and CD25 as a district to watch in 2020. Dems are going to have to make some progress in rural and exurban areas to really compete there, but after what we’ve seen this year you can’t dismiss the possibility. I’m sure someone will be up for the challenge.

Also on the “central Texas was a big key to Dem success in 2018” beat is the Chron.

“This is a major structural problem for the GOP going forward,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor from Texas Southern University.

Texas’s population growth has been dramatic in the urban and suburban communities along I-35, while areas that the GOP has long relied on in West Texas and East Texas are losing both population and voters. In other words, the base for the Democrats is only growing, while the GOP base is growing a lot less or even shrinking in some cases, Aiyer said.

[…]

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won the I-35 corridor by nearly 350,000 votes over his Democratic opponent David Alameel. But O’Rourke carried those same counties by more than 440,000 votes. That is a nearly an 800,000-vote swing in just four years.

And the impact of the blue spine went well beyond O’Rourke’s race.

– Five Republican candidates for Congress in Texas, almost all of them big favorites, survived their races with less than 51 percent of the vote. All five of their districts are along the I-35 corridor, making them instant Democratic targets for 2020.

– In the Texas House, Democrats flipped 12 seats previously held by Republicans. Ten of those are along I-35.

-In the Texas Senate, Democrats flipped two seats, both along I-35. And they nearly took a third seat north of Dallas, where Republican Angela Paxton won just 51 percent of the vote.

Those results were no one-year fluke, says Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. He said even in 2016, Democrats could see how suburban and urban cores along I-35 were changing, which made the party get more aggressive in recruiting candidates there, even in districts that were thought of as solid Republican areas.

“The fundamentals of Texas are shifting,” Garcia said.

What’s changing I-35 is what’s changing the state, said Aiyer. The state is growing more diverse and more urban as people move to the major cities. As those cities become more expensive, people are moving to surrounding counties for cheaper housing and taking their political views with them, he said.

There is a clear trend line since 2014. That year, Cornyn won the I-35 corridor by almost 350,000 votes. Two years later, Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket won it by just over 115,000 votes. This year, O’Rourke won by an even bigger margin: 440,000.

In 2014, 11 of the 16 congressional districts that touch I-35 were held by Republicans, including 10 in which the Republican won 60 percent of the vote or more. This year, only two of those 11 Republicans topped 60 percent.

The main point here is that this corridor is a huge part of Texas’ population growth, and if that growth correlates with Democratic voting strength, then we really are in a competitive state. You can talk all you want about how Ted Cruz won big in the small counties. By its very nature, that comes with a limited ceiling. I’d rather be making hay where there people are.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

By the time the polls closed Thursday, 33.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, well past the 17.3 percent turnout at the same point in 2014, the last midterm, and close to the presidential-year turnout recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

And Bexar County’s election officials are not alone in having a lot to high-five each other about. Turnout during early voting in the state’s 30 largest counties easily surpassed the entire turnout – during the early voting period and on Election Day – of the 2014 midterm and continues to race toward the turnout seen in presidential election years.

In Harris County, the state’s largest county, 32.3 percent of registered voters had voted by the end of Thursday, compared to 15.5 percent at the same point in 2014. In Dallas County, the number was 35.1 percent, compared to 15.2 percent at the same point in 2014. Early voting turnout in Travis County had already surpassed total early voter turnout in both the 2014 midterm and the 2012 presidential election by the end of Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy and activist voters out there who have been wanting to vote for a long time,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk. She attributed the bump in the number of voters to President Donald Trump.

She said voter turnout dipped slightly earlier in the week, as is often the case, but that the numbers quickly rebounded toward the end of the week, which she said will help alleviate some traffic on Election Day.

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that the “blockbuster” turnout seen during early voting this year sets a new bar for future elections.

“It’s clear that much of the future of Texas will be fought in suburban Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

He said counties like Collin, Denton, Montgomery and Williamson saw a greater number of Democrats turning up to vote than in previous elections. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to win those counties, he said, but it does mean that they have become much more competitive.

“On one hand, suburban Texas is now younger and more ethnically diverse, replacing the first generation which is middle age and white” Rottinghaus said. “And Donald Trump and some of the inflammatory rhetoric have really caused a lack of interest among Republican women and college-educated voters in the suburbs.”

Rottinghaus said statewide Hispanic turnout is up slightly from 2014, which he said is “good but not great for Democrats.” While it looked like Democrats were doing better than Republicans in border counties early on in early voting, he said that it now looks like Republican voters are turning up in larger numbers.

“It’s not the groundswell that Democrats had hoped for,” Rottinghaus said.

The same story applies to young voters, Rottinghaus said. Although more young voters turned out in 2018 than in 2014, he said the 2016 presidential year still has both of the midterm years beat.

“This seems to show that younger voters, although inspired by an electric O’Rourke campaign, still need that push of a president at the top of the ticket to turn out,” Rottinghaus said.

I think what we’re going to get is going to be somewhere between 2008/2012 turnout, and 2016 turnout, which is the current high-water mark. The main question here is how many people who are going to vote have already voted. In previous off-year elections, a bit more than half of the vote – around 55% – is cast early. In Presidential years, the share of the early vote is higher, with that number spiking up in 2016. I’ll show the details later, but for now I’ll say this feels more like a Presidential year, but not exactly like one. As such, I think we’ll still see a decent number of voters on Tuesday, but for sure the bulk of the vote has already been cast.

Here are the Friday/final totals, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  89,098  766,613  855,711

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

About where I thought we’d end up, though the potential was there for a bit more. I think the bad weather on Wednesday prevented some people from voting, with some of them shifting to Thursday or Friday and some of them still needing to vote. Here are a range of outcomes for final turnout based on what we’ve seen so far:

855,711 at 65% = 1,316,478
855,711 at 67% = 1,277,180
855,711 at 70% = 1,222,444
855,711 at 73% = 1,172,206
855,711 at 75% = 1,140,980

2008 EV = 63.5%
2012 EV = 63.7%
2016 EV = 73.0%

In other words, in 2008 and 2012 a bit more than 63% of the vote was cast early, while in 2016 that amount was 73 percent. My best guess, based entirely on gut feel, is that we’ll fall in the middle of that this year, which will put us in the 1.2 million range, or about the total for 2008 and 2012. It could still go higher or lower from there, and in the end the range of possibility is about 200K votes. The weather should be good on Tuesday, so at least there won’t be any nature-induced barriers.

One last thing to think about. In 2016, the top Republican votegetter was Tracy Christopher, who was running for the 14th Court of Appeals, with 621,960 votes, followed by Debra Ibarra Mayfield, running for the 165th District Court, with 621,060. The smallest number of votes any Democrat received who was on the ballot for everyone in the county was 610,648 by Grady Yarbrough, running for Railroad Commissioner. Most Republican judicial candidates, including all of the statewide judicials other than Eva Guzman and all of the courts of appeals candidates other than Christopher and Sherry Radack, failed to top Yarbrough’s total. If turnout really is 1.2 million or above, you tell me where the Republicans are going to get the votes to win Harris County.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

Early voting Day 5: It’s been a long week (in a good way)

Did I mention it’s been busy?

Voters across the state have come out in massive numbers during the first five days of early voting, and soon, more Texans will have voted early in 2018 than in all of 2014’s early voting period, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

The state’s five largest counties have all nearly doubled the turnout compared to the same point in 2014. By the time the polls closed Thursday, 13.2 percent of registered voters in Harris County, the state’s largest county, had voted, compared to 6.4 percent at the same time in 2014. That number comes close to the 16.4 percent voter turnout seen at the end of the fourth day of early voting in 2016, a presidential year.

The story is similar in Dallas County, which recorded a voter turnout of 16.9 percent at the end of Thursday, compared to 5.9 percent at the same point in 2014, and in Tarrant County, which recorded a voter turnout of 16 percent at the end of Thursday, compared to 7.3 percent at the same point in 2014.

In Travis County, where the Austin Fiesta Mart polling location is, Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant reported on Facebook that as of 4 p.m. Friday, 22 percent of registered voters had cast their vote. The number hovered around 7 percent at the same point back in 2014.

“After just five days of early voting, the 2018 voter turnout will likely have passed the entire Early Vote turnout for the 2010 and 2014 elections,” Elfant wrote.

Some counties — like El Paso, Williamson and Cameron — have already surpassed the overall voter turnout during the entire two-week early voting period in 2014. Overall, by the time the polls closed on Thursday, 16.3 percent of the 12.3 million registered voters in the 30 counties with the most registered voters had cast ballots.

“It’s pretty remarkable to double or triple voter turnout,” said Renée Cross, the associate director of the Hobby Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston.

[…]

Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the long lines at polling places are “notable,” but he said that “almost any voter turnout should be above 2014.”

Jones also said it is too early to draw conclusions about whether strong early voting turnout will mean strong overall turnout. Early voting could be “cannibalizing Election Day turnout, ” he said.

“More and more people are voting early,” said Jones, who estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of registered voters will cast their vote before Election Day. “People have gotten used to it, and campaigns have been encouraging it.”

He noted that a greater proportion of voters this year will be under the age of 35.

“Beto O’Rourke has spent quite a bit of money and time targeting millennials and post-millennials with the correct belief that they support him more than any other age group,” Jones said.

I agree that some of the frenzied activity is people shifting behavior, but it’s quite a bit more than that. We’re on pace in Harris County to blow past not just the early voting totals from past years, but the final totals as well. Close to one million just in early voting remains on the table. Say it with me now: We’ve never seen anything like this before.

Here are the totals for Friday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  29,702  134,488  164,190
2014  54,300  104,099  158,399
2018  65,232  315,034  380,266

2008  40,059  220,046  260,105
2012  53,131  260,274  313,405
2016  77,445  374,679  452,124

As I expected, after the slight dip on Thursday, in person voting ticked up and was, by about 900 votes, the busiest in person day so far. We have now officially exceeded the entire final early vote total from 2014, and we have seven days of early voting to go. We haven’t even gotten to the really heavy days yet.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

Paxton wants magistrates’ lawsuit tossed

We all want things, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

The state attorney general Monday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by three Harris County hearing officers who are fighting sanctions by Texas’ judicial ethics commission earlier this year over unfair bail practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also asked that the case brought by three admonished magistrates be transferred from Harris County, where the judges sit, to Travis County, where the State Commission on Judicial Conduct is based. Paxton also asserts that the state watchdog agency has “sovereign immunity” from being sued.

The lawsuit, filed in May by three local magistrates, challenges the commission’s finding that they violated the state code of conduct for judges during probable cause hearings for newly arrested defendants. The hearing officers, Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace and Joseph Licata III, initially challenged the commission’s findings through a more straightforward appeal to the state’s Special Court of Review. However, they later withdrew that appeal and sued the commission to have their records be cleared of the findings of misconduct.

Mike Stafford, who is representing the magistrates free of charge in this lawsuit, said the sanctions should be eliminated because the watchdog commission surpassed its authority in telling magistrates they can’t refer bond matters to the judges assigned to the cases.

“This case presents an important and rare opportunity to affirm that the Commission may not interpret Texas law and to ensure that the Commission is not allowed to exceed its mandate,” Stafford argued in district court filings.

See here for the background. I presume the reason to ask for a transfer as well as a dismissal is that if you don’t get the one you might at least get the other. Beyond that, I have no particular insights so I’ll just note this for the record and move on.

Nothing to see here

Remain calm, all is well.

Next Saturday, March 24, hundreds of Texas Democratic Party activists will gather at the Austin Hyatt Regency to nominate candidates for political office in Travis County, a kick-off event leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

But some people who tried to register will not be attending, among them Candida McGruder. Gustavo Chubb. Geraldo Tinsley. Vincent Amundson. Roxie Male.

That’s because these five individuals and 43 others who signed up to attend don’t appear to be Travis County residents, or Texans, or even Americans. They might not even be real people. They may be pranksters — or they may be Russian trolls, and their appearance in Texas could represent the first public example of foreign probing of the 2018 elections.

Five senior intelligence officers, two current and three former, say the case of the Texas 48 looks like Russian meddling. And they tell NBC News that despite the clumsiness of the failed registrations, the Texas case fits a pattern of Russian behavior seen in its covert operations.

[…]

Earlier this year, as Texas party officials prepared for the March 24 county meetings that would nominate candidates for office, Glen Maxey noticed something odd about online registrations for the Travis County meeting in Austin. Some of the people attempting to register either didn’t fully fill out their online form or provided obviously false information.

Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party and a former member of the Texas House of Representatives, said that at the time just over 2,500 Texas citizens had successfully registered online for the Travis County meeting. He went through the aborted registrations by hand, checking to see whether the registrations had been “kicked back” because of simple errors, in which case he would follow up with the individuals.

Maxey found a few unfinished registrations that were simple mistakes. But he identified 48 that were problematic, meaning they seemed unconnected to anybody living in Texas. Twenty-five of those 48 were trying to register with email addresses ending in “mail.ru.” Those last two letters, .ru, are the internet designation for domains in Russia.

Maxey told NBC News he and his team hadn’t seen any other examples of pranks or false registrations in past cycles. He also said he didn’t know who to contact in Texas state government and had received no guidance from either state or federal authorities regarding anything to do with potential Russian interference.

[…]

So are the Russians coming?

On the surface, said cyberintelligence expert and NBC News consultant Sean Kanuck, “this almost sounds like junior high school students ordering pizzas under fake names.”

But beneath the surface, Kanuck thinks perhaps something more sinister could be afoot.

Despite the ham-handedness that announces an obvious Russian origin, said Kanuck, who served as the first national intelligence officer for cyber issues at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2011 to 2016, the methods and even the in-your-face nature of the trolling fit the pattern of “a Russian strategic campaign to delegitimize the democratic electoral process.”

“I would speculate that Russia is testing the waters for possible interventions or disruptions in the future,” Kanuck said.

Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. Boys will be boys, right? Donald Trump will get his top men right on it.

The Socialists are coming

To a primary ballot near you.

The revolution will be down-ballot. Or such is the implicit promise of Franklin Bynum’s campaign for Harris County misdemeanor court judge. A 35-year-old former public defender, Bynum said he’s seen Houston’s criminal courts routinely railroad the poor into convictions that drive them further into poverty. Now, after nearly 10 years subject to the whims of conservative judges, he’s aiming to take the gavel for himself.

“Who are these courts being operated for? Right now, it’s the police, the bondsmen and the prosecutors, and people are just the raw material to be chewed up,” said Bynum, who’s running as a Democrat for Harris County Criminal Court at Law 8. Bynum’s platform includes expanding the use of personal recognizance bonds, waiving certain fees for the poor and reducing mandatory appearances, which he said are used only to “coerce” guilty pleas from defendants out on bail. “A democratic socialist judge would make the courts work for the people,” he said.

Bynum is one of at least 17 members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) running for office in Texas in 2018, including candidates for the U.S. House and offices ranging from governor to county treasurer. The DSA, which now counts more than 30,000 members nationwide, has grown explosively since Trump’s election and boasts at least 10 chapters in Texas. The group tends to prioritize issues on the left edge of the Democratic Party, like single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage. There’s no official candidate list, but the Observer reached out to DSA groups around the state to compile this running tally. (Not all the candidates have been endorsed by DSA.)

Some of the candidates, like gubernatorial hopeful Tom Wakely — who styles himself the “Berniecrat with a Panama hat” and lost a 2014 congressional bid by 20 points — face the sort of uphill climb usually found in the Himalayas. But others stand a fighting chance, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. Jones pointed to congressional hopefuls Derrick Crowe, in District 21, and Rick Treviño, in the always-competitive District 23, as viable primary challengers.

“With Treviño and Crowe, it’s sort of the mirror image of what we saw with the tea party,” Jones said. “The advantage the establishment candidates have is money, but the tea party’s shown us that sometimes money can lose to these grassroots activist campaigns.”

In District 23, which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio and is currently represented by moderate Republican Will Hurd, Jones said a left wing platform that plays well with primary voters might fall flat in the general election. Hillary Clinton carried the swingy district by 3.5 percent in 2016, and Hurd’s margin of victory was just over 1 percent. But Treviño, a San Antonio high school teacher, is bullish: “[District] 23 is always described as a conservative district where ideas like Medicare for All or a living wage will turn off voters; that is absolutely false,” he wrote in a Facebook message to the Observer. “Across the district, these ideas are resonating, especially Medicare for All.”

There’s a list of DSA candidates at the bottom of the story and on this Google doc, which includes statements from some of them. As the story notes, some of these folks have a clearer path than others. Bynum has no primary opponent, so he’ll rise or fall with the rest of the countywide slate here in November. Danny Norris in HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1, Chito Vela in HD46, the two Travis County judicial candidates – if they win their primaries, they’re in. Derrick Crowe has raised a decent amount of money but lags Joseph Kopser by a wide margin in that primary. A win in March by Crowe would be a big feather for the DSA’s cap. I’m much more skeptical about Rick Trevino, who has two well-funded and establishment-backed primary opponents, and is in a district that isn’t exactly conducive to blockwalking. It’s not just about fundraising, either – if you look at their campaign Facebook pages, Gina Ortiz Jones has more than three times as many followers as Trevino, while Jay Hulings has more than double his total. I don’t know what the best way is to measure “grassroots” support, but the measures I can find don’t corroborate the notion that Trevino has an underestimated level of backing. We’ll know for sure in a week.

On a side note, I’d observe that there’s less difference between the DSA position and the “establishment” position than you might think, at least on some issues. Look at what Bynum says about his priorities for the misdemeanor court he’s running for, then compare the judicial Q&As I ran for Harold Landreneau and Armen Merjanian. Bail reform – which is supported by the likes of DA Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez – and finding alternatives to incarceration are pretty mainstream these days. Sure, there are some differences, and there are different priorities, but to a sizable degree a lot of it is about strategy and rhetoric, much as it is the case with the Tea Party and the “establishment” Republicans.

Local control and local races

From Texas Monthly:

Rep. Paul Workman

At the end of last week, the Austin City Council voted to pass a new ordinance requiring local businesses to give their employees paid sick leave. It was the end result of a long and intense fight, which pitted labor leaders and a diverse coalition from Austin’s liberal community against more than one hundred local business owners and a national group backed by the powerful Koch Brothers. Supporters packed the council chambers to speak before the vote, and many gave impassioned pleas to vote in favor of paid sick leave. According to the Texas Observer, some speakers “broke down in tearsas they recounted times when they or their loved ones had to choose between accessing health care and paying rent.” When the 9-2 vote came in, the crowd broke out in raucous cheers, applauding Austin for becoming the first municipality in Texas and in the Southern U.S. to enact such an ordinance.

But the cheers were a little premature. Austin’s City Council may not have the final say in the the battle. Within hours of the ordinance’s passage, state representative Paul Workman, a Republican whose district covers much of western Travis County, said he’d introduce legislation on the first day of next year’s session in an effort to have the ordinance repealed. “I support employers providing paid sick leave for their employees, but it is not the role of government to mandate that employers do this,” Workman said at a press conference later Friday morning. “The council made good on their promise to add yet more regulations on private business. They have clearly declared war on the private businesses which make our prosperity happen. I will file legislation on the first day possible to reverse this and the other liberal Austin policies that they’ve enacted.”

Workman said he felt it was an overreach for the council to enact such an ordinance (when reporters at the news conference questioned him about whether it was also an overreach for the state legislature to intervene in a decision made by elected local officials, Workman said no). Austin’s paid leave ordinance is just the latest local target of conservative state lawmakers, who have repeatedly tried to overturn municipal policies—ordinances that are usually liberal-leaning and typically implement regulations on businesses or industry. It’s a story that’s played out again and again, and not just in Austin.

[…]

For now, it seems Austin’s paid leave is safe. Workman can’t do much until the start of the legislative session in 2019. But he claims he already has enough support from members of the House and Senate to pass legislation that overrides the ordinance. “We will have no problem whatsoever getting this through,” Workman said at the press conference. At least one member of the senate, Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels, has publicly said that she’s committed to overturning the rule.

Less than half of Workman’s district is actually in Austin, not that it matters to Republicans like him. But hold that thought for a minute.

From the Texas Tribune:

In 2011 — after Republican Paul Workman unseated state Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin — lawmakers redrew House District 47 to include a larger swath of western Travis County.

The new district, which gained more rural areas and lost some of liberal South Austin, stretched from Onion Creek to Lago Vista to Leander. It became a conservative stronghold, and to this day, Workman is the county’s only Republican state representative.

Seven years later, it’s a potential swing district again. Texas political experts point to rising frustration with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party that could rally the Democratic base and cause conservative voters to stay home on Election Day.

The effects of this trend would be more pronounced in districts Trump either lost or just barely won two years ago. And Trump carried HD-47 — where many residents are white and have a household income greater than $100,000 — with fewer than 200 votes.

Hoping to flip the seat for the first time since 2011, five Democrats are running in the March 6 primary: Elaina Fowler, the executive director of a union of retired government employees; Vikki Goodwin, a real estate broker; Sheri Soltes, the founder of a nonprofit that trains service dogs; Candace Aylor, a recovery room nurse; and Will Simpson, a technology field executive.

“We are seeing more money and more activity in this district than we have in a long, long time,” Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield said. “There is definitely greater energy from the Democrats than ever before.”

[…]

“The challenge here for Democrats is you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Harold Cook, an Austin Democratic political strategist. “At the end of the day, they will need to have nominated a candidate who is really articulate on messaging and has the funds with which to communicate with voters.”

None of the Democratic candidates have run for office before. But all of them said they’re fed up with the social ramifications of the state’s “bathroom bill” discussion and the 2016 election. They also hope to improve public school financing, transportation and the district’s environmental preservation.

The candidates’ policy stances are similar, but Fowler and Goodwin have emerged at the forefront of the race, Littlefield said. Fowler has the most legislative experience of the group, and Goodwin has raised the most money.

I don’t know anything about these candidates beyond what is in this story, but that’s not the point. The point is that the way to stop legislators like Paul Workman from passing bills expressly designed to strip cities of their power is to vote them out of office. Races like this are at least as important as the races for Congress that have dominated the coverage so far this cycle. Pay attention to your State Rep races – and your State Senate races, if you have one – especially if your current Rep or Senator is a Republican. This is our best chance since 2008 to make the Legislature a better, more inclusive, and more responsive institution. We can’t afford to blow it.

Charges against Dukes dropped

She beat the rap.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Travis County prosecutors have dropped their criminal charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, saying Monday that a felony case against the state lawmaker should never have been brought.

The announcement ends a months-long legal saga in which Dukes was accused of abusing public office after a grand jury indicted her on 13 felony charges and two misdemeanor charges earlier this year. But prosecutors have, over recent weeks, been forced to admit that their case against the Austin Democrat was based on flawed evidence.

“Representative Dukes was innocent from day one,” said Dane Ball, an attorney for Dukes, in a statement. “We’re glad Representative Dukes can get back to serving her constituents without the distraction of these baseless charges.”

The felony case against Dukes claimed she had unlawfully tampered with a government record by falsifying entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to. But Travis County prosecutors were forced to put their felony case on hold last month after claiming a key witness in the case — who managed the official paperwork for the Texas House of Representatives — had changed his story.

Then, earlier this month, prosecutors were forced to drop one of the felony charges after acknowledging they had misread a date on Dukes’ cellphone, which formed a key piece of evidence they had gathered against her.

See here for more on that previous update. To say the least, the Travis County DA’s office did not cover itself in glory in this case. Margaret Moore needs to take a hard look at how this happened, and hold some people accountable for it. I’m not a fan of Dawnna Dukes, but she did not deserve to go through this.

Which is not to say that Dukes has been exemplary throughout. She’s a mediocre legislator who misses a lot of votes and as the story notes settled some misdemeanor issues related to misuse of funds by agreeing to pay everything back. She will have a full slate of opponents next year, most of whom once intended to run in a special election after she was supposed to resign her seat in January. I won’t be sorry to see her lose, if she does. Still, I have to figure that the ending of this saga will help in her re-election bid. She was wronged and she prevailed, and that’s an appealing story to tell the voters. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Dukes gets deferral on felony charges

Possibly good news for one embattled legislative incumbent.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Travis County district attorney will not pursue, at least for now, the most serious charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, saying prosecutors have renewed their investigation into the travel vouchers at the heart of the 13 felony counts the Austin Democrat is facing.

District Attorney Margaret Moore confirmed to the American-Statesman on Thursday that prosecutors have obtained new information relating to the vouchers, which Dukes is accused of falsifying for financial gain. But Moore declined to elaborate on what the new information is.

“The district attorney’s office recently received new, unexpected information pertinent to that case and the new information has created a need for further investigation by this office and the Texas Rangers,” Moore said.

The case had been set for trial in October. On Wednesday, Moore’s office informed Dukes’ defense lawyers and state District Judge Brad Urrutia of her decision.

Moore said prosecutors will move forward with the October trial date on two misdemeanor charges against Dukes relating to allegations of her using legislative staffers for personal gain.

[…]

The 13 felony counts stem from monthly travel voucher forms Dukes signed in late 2013 and 2014. The forms stated that, on the dates in question, Dukes “traveled by personal car to the Capitol to attend to legislative duties.” She was paid $61.50 for each day she claimed on the forms.

The House Manual of Policies & Procedures states that lawmakers can collect the travel pay between legislative sessions for trips to Austin “to attend to legislative duties in their office.”

KiYa Moghaddam, a former Dukes staffer who prepared the voucher forms for Dukes during that time, told the Statesman last year that she questioned Dukes about misusing the forms.

“I told her that she had to actually be at the Capitol,” Moghaddam said last year. “I was thinking about the fact that I’m a taxpayer, and I don’t necessarily want my tax payments going to someone who’s not working for the interest of the constituency she represents.”

The indictment says that Dukes did “knowingly make a false entry in a government record, and present and use said government record with knowledge of its falsity, by instructing her staff to add a false entry to her State of Texas Travel Voucher Form.”

Dukes was paid $799.50 for the 13 days included in the indictment. She was a frequent user of the voucher forms, collecting $4,674 from 76 days she claimed in the first nine months of 2014. She abruptly stopped collecting the travel pay at that time, which was when Moghaddam questioned her use of the vouchers.

See here for the most recent update. We don’t know what new evidence the DA’s office has, so we can’t say whether this may lead to charges being dismissed or reduced, or possibly added. Or maybe it puts the DA in a stronger position to negotiate a plea deal. It seems more likely than not to be good news for Dukes, but let’s wait and see what the next story is before drawing any conclusions. In the meantime, she still faces trial on the misdemeanor charges, and multiple primary opponents who have been calling for her to honor her previous pledge to step down.

Paxton’s preemptive “sanctuary cities” lawsuit dismissed

Good.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a pre-emptive lawsuit shortly after the bill was signed in May seeking a ruling that the controversial measure is constitutional. Among the defendants named in Paxton’s suit were the city of Austin; Travis County and its sheriff, Sally Hernandez; and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

[…]

But opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Those entities filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton in San Antonio, trying to prevent the law from taking effect. Oral arguments in that case were heard in June.

Sparks’ ruling means the case will stay in San Antonio.

In a statement, the attorney general said he was disappointed in Sparks’ ruling but that Wednesday’s decision has no effect on the San Antonio case.

“We were first to file a lawsuit concerning SB 4, filed this case in the only proper court, and moved quickly to consolidate other lawsuits against SB 4 in Austin,” he said. “The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable. We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling and look forward to pressing our winning arguments in the San Antonio cases and beyond (if necessary) on this undoubtedly constitutional law.”

Though Sparks’ ruling Wednesday is a small victory for SB4’s opponents, they must now wait and see what U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia decides following a seven-hour hearing in Bexar County on June 26.

So that means that Judge Garcia will get to decide whether the law goes into effect on September 1 or if it is put on hold pending final judgment in the lawsuit. I don’t think this ruling changes the basic contours of the case, but as I recall if Paxton had prevailed in his lawsuit, that would have put the defendants he filed against on the hook for court costs. That’s no longer the case now. Now we await what Judge Garcia has to say.

No deal for Dukes

The die is cast.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Travis County District Attorney’s office on Tuesday said its offer to drop all corruption charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, in exchange for her agreeing to resign immediately had expired.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said she’d had no contact from the attorneys for Dukes.

“The offer to resolve this matter has expired and is no longer available,” Moore said in a statement. “We will be ready for trial.”

[…]

“It is truly not dignifying this new low that such character assassination has hit in this web woven to influence a court of public opinion,” Dukes wrote in a Facebook post Monday night. “As such, it would be indecorous of me to respond to impertinent allegations.”

When the Tribune asked Dukes about the DA office’s deal Tuesday morning, Dukes said, “I’m not talking about that right now.”

Dukes declining the deal means the district attorney’s office will move forward with the trial, which was set by Judge Brad Urrutia for Oct. 16.

“It’s time to move on. Some form of this deal has been discussed [with Dukes] since September,” Moore told the Tribune on Monday. “We’ve got to go to work, and we’re going to be preparing for trial.”

See here for the background. On the Off the Kuff Facebook page, the point was raised that using the threat of prosecution to push an elected official to resign may not be something we should want. It’s a valid concern, and I see where it comes from. I guess I see this as part of a plea agreement, one which Dukes has chosen not to take. All other issues aside, we’ll know in October whether she made a wise decision.

Dukes offered deal to resign

Take it, I say.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Beleaguered state Rep. Dawnna Dukes has until the end of the day Tuesday to resign from office — and submit to a drug and alcohol assessment — as part of a plea offer in her criminal corruption case.

The plea offer is similar to one Dukes rejected last year prior to the Texas Rangers launching an investigation that led to a Travis County grand jury indicting Dukes on 13 felony charges and two misdemeanors.

Dukes did not respond to messages left by the American-Statesman on Monday morning. She told reporters in June after pleading not guilty that she would not take any plea deals and instead will proceed to trial on Oct. 16.

The deal expires at the close of the business day on Tuesday and will not be re-offered, according to Justin Wood of the district attorney’s office.

[…]

In exchange for accepting the offer, the DA’s office has agreed to drop all charges, but only after Dukes has complied with all conditions.

See here, here, and here for some background. As she has not yet been convicted of anything, Dukes is not mandated to resign by my lights. It’s her long term record of lousiness as a representative that makes me wish to see the back of her. Do us all a favor and take the deal, Dawnna. It would be the best thing you’ve done for your constituents in recent memory. The Trib has more.

Dukes pleads not guilty

To all counts.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, entered not guilty pleas to abuse-of-office charges Friday in Travis County district court.

The 12-term lawmaker pleaded not guilty to tampering with a governmental record and abuse of official capacity by a public servant. Judge Brad Urrutia on Friday set a trial date of Oct. 16.

Dukes told reporters outside the court room: “Why accept a plea when I didn’t do what they are alleging?”

“No one has heard all of the evidence and heard my side,” Dukes said. “There’s been a barrage of print media that has attempted to try me in the court of public opinion, yet the court and the proceedings have not begun and when they do, my attorney will tell the full story, the whole story and show that unequivocally I am not guilty of these charges.”

[…]

Dukes has faced criticism for missing votes and being absent from the House floor. She was not in attendance when the House voted on the final budget.

When asked if she was going to run for re-election, Dukes said: “That is a very strong possibility.”

See here and here for the background. Dukes is entitled to her day in court, and she’s innocent until proven guilty, but she’s been a replacement level legislator for a long time. One way or another, this needs to be her last term.

Hearing for that other SB4 lawsuit

The SB4 lawsuit that Ken Paxton filed, to get the law pre-emptively declared to be constitutional, had its hearing in Austin on Thursday.

A federal judge on Thursday criticized the politics surrounding Texas’ new immigration-enforcement law and hinted that he’d be unable to take the case over from his colleague in Bexar County.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks told attorneys for the state of Texas that he had a docket twice as busy as San Antonio-based Orlando Garcia after he was asked by the state to declare Austin the appropriate venue for what’s gearing up to be a lengthy court battle over Senate bill 4.

[…]

“San Antonio has a track record of evidence that Judge Garcia can take into consideration,” Sparks said, referring to a seven-hour hearing on Monday in San Antonio where attorneys for both sides argued over the legality of allowing state governments to enforce federal immigration laws. He added that he has a trial scheduled in August that could likely spill into September.

Thursday’s hearing was a dramatic shift from Monday’s display, where Garcia sat largely silent and appeared to take every motion, argument and counter-argument into consideration. Sparks instead often interrupted the attorneys and repeated what he said should be simple questions to answer when the attorneys strayed off topic. He also hinted that he believed parties that joined the lawsuit against the state did so for political purposes.

“The city of Austin just got in because it’s political and they get a lot of advertisement” [in the press], he said.

[…]

The judge also cast doubt on whether any court would be able to declare a law constitutional when it hasn’t gone into effect yet.

“I don’t have the authority to forecast the future and you have a statute that doesn’t come into effect until September,” he told David Hacker, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office.

Sparks didn’t give a time line on when he’d rule on the motion to move the case to Austin.

See here and here for the background. I’m sure there was a good helping of politics in the various cities’ and counties’ decisions to pile onto the anti_SB4 lawsuit, but then SB4 itself was all about politics. Based on the things Judge Sparks said during the hearing, I’d prefer he leave the San Antonio lawsuit be rather than combine it with the Paxton lawsuit. At least he doesn’t seem inclined to take any action before the law is scheduled to go into effect. The Statesman and the DMN have more.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.