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Travis County

There was definitely an improvement in mail ballot acceptance for the primary runoffs

The last time I looked, I was largely unable to find any news stories about mail ballots and their rejection rates for the May primary runoff elections, with the exception of one story about Bexar County and how they were leading the field in getting rejection rates down to something akin to pre-SB1 levels. I still can’t find any stories about this, but it (finally) occurred to me that the new reconciliation reports that election officials now have to publish would contain the data I’m looking for. So with that in mind, off I went. I obviously don’t have the time to go looking everywhere, and some of those smaller county elections webpages are just awful, but I did have a look at a few places of interest.

Harris County, Democratic: 19,081 total mail ballots, of which 1,128 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 5.9%.

Harris County, Republican: 15,053 total mail ballots, of which 1,169 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 7.8%

That’s a clear improvement of the 20% rejection rate from March and the 12% rejection rate of the May special election. It’s still too high, but it’s not take-your-breath-away too high. And it pleases me no end to see Republicans have a harder time with it than Democrats. It’s unlikely to be enough to matter if that’s still the case in November, but it would be a rich piece of karma if more of their votes got tossed as a result of this malicious law.

Bexar County, Democratic: 11,919 total mail ballots, of which 15 (yes, fifteen) were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.1%.

Bexar County, Republican: 5,856 total mail ballots, of which 33 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Bexar is definitely the gold standard, the example for everyone else to emulate. And Dems did better here as well. Encouraging.

Travis County, cumulative: 10,224 total mail ballots, of which 222 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 2.2%.

Not all counties broke this out by party. The overall rate is low enough here to not sweat it too much. About 75% of the mail ballots overall were Democratic, so it’s likely that the Dem rejection rate was right around 2.2% – the Republican rate could have been a lot different without affecting the total too much.

Dallas County, cumulative: 10,708 total mail ballots, of which 176 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 1.6%.

Like Travis County, but slightly fewer rejections. Dems cast a bit less than 70% of the mail ballots.

Montgomery County, cumulative: 4,366 total mail ballots, of which 25 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Republicans knew what they were doing here. They were 70% of mail ballots.

Fort Bend County, cumulative: 4,382 total mail ballots, of which 187 were rejected, for a 4.3% rejection rate.

Closest one yet to Harris. About two thirds of mail ballots were Democratic. Would have been nice to see the breakdown by party here.

Cameron County, Democratic: 1,323 total mail ballots, of which 3 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.3%.

Cameron County, Republican: 292 total mail ballots, of which 2 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.7%.

Wow.

So it’s clear there was a lot of improvement, and while Harris did a much better job there’s room for us to do better as well. It’s also important to remember that there are still a huge number of people who have not yet tried to vote by mail, so there’s no guarantee that the improvements will continue or be maintained. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least it looks like that work will have a payoff.

(PS – Not all counties had the reconciliation reports in a place that I could find. I looked for them for El Paso and Tarrant and came up empty. Might have just been me, but maybe their site design needs some work.)

When we had more deaths than births in Texas

Seems like that would be a bad thing.

In the midst of the nation’s deadliest pandemic, Texas recorded more births than deaths every month since 2016 — with one exception.

Provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that January 2021 was the only month when, statewide, the number of deaths was greater than the number of births.

Nine months before in April 2020, the world was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths from COVID-19 peaked in Texas, according to The New York Times, and vaccines had just become available to select groups of individuals.

Twenty counties — including Bexar County — recorded more births than deaths every month until the pandemic, when they began having months with more deaths than births.

The number of births for a county is determined by the mother’s residence.

Thirty one counties — including more populous ones like Harris, Dallas and Travis — always recorded more births than deaths, even during the pandemic.

Five counties — Bowie, Kerr, Potter, Smith, and Wichita — reported more deaths than births for all 22 months of pandemic data available.

There are charts and maps in the story, and they calculate the birth and death rates on a per 100K people basis to make everything more easily comparable. One thing the story doesn’t go into, which is a thing that has been widely reported on elsewhere, is differences in voting patterns across the counties. I’m not going to dive into all of the data here, but I will note this much about those five counties that had a net loss (not counting migrations) for each month:

Bowie – Trump 70.9%
Kerr – Trump 75.3%
Potter – Trump 68.5%
Smith – Trump 69.0%
Wichita – Trump 69.7%

You get the picture.

Paxton whines about the disciplinary process he selected

My head hurts.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s top lawyer, said Friday the state bar was suing him for professional misconduct related to his lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

“I have recently learned that the Texas State Bar — which has been waging a months-long witch-hunt against me — now plans to sue me and my top deputy for filing Texas v. Penn: the historic challenge to the unconstitutional 2020 presidential election joined by nearly half of all the states and over a hundred members of Congress,” Paxton said in a statement released on social media. “I stand by this lawsuit completely.”

A few hours after saying he was being sued by the bar, Paxton’s office announced an investigation into the Texas Bar Foundation for “facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens” by donating money to groups that “encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border.” The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Representatives for the Texas Bar Foundation could not immediately be reached for comment. Trey Apffel, executive director of the State Bar of Texas, said the bar and the foundation are privately funded and don’t receive taxpayer funds.

“The foundation is separately funded through charitable donations and governed by its own board of trustees,” Apffel said. “While we are unsure what donations are at issue here, we are confident that the foundation’s activities are in line with its mission of enhancing the rule of law and the system of justice in Texas.”

Paxton, an embattled Republican seeking a third term, said state bar investigators who now appear to be moving on a lawsuit against him are biased and said the decision to sue him, which comes a week before early voting in his GOP runoff for attorney general, was politically motivated. He is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the May 24 election.

“Texas Bar: I’ll see you and the leftists that control you in court,” he said. “I’ll never let you bully me, my staff or the Texans I represent into backing down or going soft on defending the Rule of Law — something for which you have little knowledge.”

In fact, the investigation into Paxton has been pending for months. Last July, a group of 16 lawyers that included four former state bar presidents filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including his decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The attorneys said the lawsuit was “frivolous” and had been filed without evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it, saying Texas had no standing to sue.

In March, the investigation moved ahead and Paxton was given 20 days to decide whether he wanted a trial by jury or an administrative hearing to resolve the complaint.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the state bar said the group had not been notified of a decision. Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers who filed the ethics complaint, said he also had not been notified of a trial but that Paxton would have received notification.

“I was as surprised as you were to see that tweet this morning,” Harrington said.

See here for some background. You may note that happened in early March, almost two months ago, which is considerably more than 20 days. I don’t know if time moves more slowly in this context or if there just wasn’t any mechanism to enforce the decision Paxton had to make. Whatever the case, he made it and now he’s fundraising off of it. At least that much is par for the course, at least for him. While this case will be heard in Travis County, the judge who oversees it will be selected from the Texas Judicial Branch’s administrative region, which is a fairly large area. I don’t know how any of that works, either – this whole thing is kind of a black box. But it’s moving along, which is more than we can say for some other messes involving Ken Paxton.

UPDATE: Via email, a statement from the Texas Bar Foundation:

“The Foundation is extremely disappointed to learn that AG Paxton has decided to use taxpayer dollars on a fruitless exercise. Had AG Paxton taken the time to come and speak with us rather than issue a press release, I am confident that he would have found no wrongdoing on the part of the Foundation. Nevertheless, the Foundation is happy to cooperate and provide the AG’s office with documents and information relevant to the investigation.

Thousands of Texans have had their lives changed because of grants received from the Texas Bar Foundation. General Paxton is misinformed. The Foundation does not receive funding from taxpayer dollars. To the contrary, our grants are made possible by the generosity of Texas lawyers. We receive voluntary contributions from the Fellows of the Foundation, and those contributions enable the Foundation to award millions of dollars in grants. We will proudly continue to award grants to much-needed charities throughout Texas going forward.”

There’s a story in today’s Chron that has more information than this Trib story. I’ll do a separate post on that.

When a divorce helps to define a marriage

Interesting case.

A gay San Antonio man has filed for a divorce in which he seeks to prove a common law marriage existed with his former partner of 25 years when federal law prohibited same sex marriage. The law has since then been ruled unconstitutional by Obergefell vs. Hodges in 2015.

If he is successful in his divorce petition, Christopher Hoffman would be eligible for alimony and other benefits from his former partner Moises Ortiz. It would also mark the first time in Texas that a common law [informal] divorce would be granted to a same sex couple who were together prior to Obergefell.

The Texas Family Code provides two methods for establishing a common law [informal] marriage. The first is to “file a declaration of informal marriage with the county clerk. Tex. Fam. Code 2.40l(a)(l).” The second is by showing that “I) the parties ‘agreed to be married’; 2) that the parties lived together as spouses; and 3) that they ‘represented to others that they were married.’ Tex. Fam. Code 2.401 (a)(2).” Additionally, the partner seeking to establish the existence of a common law marriage “bears the burden of demonstrating the three elements by a preponderance of the evidence.”

According to court documents, Hoffman and Ortiz lived together for 25 years beginning in 1994. Hoffman filed for the common law divorce on July 19, 2019 citing adultery and mistreatment among other reasons. In responding to Hoffman’s assertion, Ortiz denies that a common law marriage existed, saying that he and Hoffman had only been roommates.

On July 30, 2019, Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court of Bexar County found that Ortiz’s claim that he and Hoffman “were simply roommates that acted as partners to be incredulous testimony.” The judge went on to issue a temporary order requiring Ortiz to pay Hoffman $1,200 monthly for interim spousal support until a final jury trial’s verdict.

On January 22, 2021, Ortiz’s attorney filed a motion for a Declaratory Judgment which would have made a final, legally binding declaration that Hoffman’s petition was not valid.

Ortiz contended that there was no precedent in Texas state law to show that Obergefell applies retroactively to same sex couples. Hoffman’s attorney countered that there had been two incidents (Ford v. Freemen 2020 and Hinojosa v. LaFredo 2012) of courts in Texas recognizing “a pre-Obergefell same sex common law marriage. However no Texas appellate court has issued any binding authority on the issue.”

(Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney Shelly Skeen authored a brief in the Hinojosa v. LaFredo case.)

There are a couple of precedents I could cite for pre-Obergefell marriages later getting legally dissolved in Texas. Way back in 2010, a Travis County district court judge granted a divorce to two women who had been married in Massachusetts. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott sued to undo the divorce ruling on the grounds that their marriage was not recognized by the state of Texas. That case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled against Abbott, upholding a Third Court of Appeals decision that Abbott didn’t have standing because he waited to intervene until after the original district court ruling. That ruling happened a few months before Obergefell, and SCOTx was emphatic that it was not saying anything about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, just about the AG’s standing to intervene in that case.

In 2014, there was a divorce and child custody filing in Bexar County, also between two women who in this case had been married in Washington,. That one had been filed eight days before a federal judge ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional; this was the original Texas case filed by Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, and Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss. The judge in that Bexar County case later also ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, basing her opinion on the federal case while specifying sections of the state’s Family Code as being illegal. She also cordially invited Greg Abbott to butt the hell out, which kind of makes her my hero. I don’t have any further updates on that case, so it’s my best guess that it eventually proceeded to a normal resolution in the courts.

Finally (yes, I went deep on this one; it’s a topic that fascinates me), there was a post-Obergefell divorce granted in Tarrant County, the culmination of a proceeding that had been filed in 2013. It appears that it was the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage that spurred the case resolution for this one.

So with all that said, and with the usual proviso that I Am Not A Lawyer, I like plaintiff Hoffman’s chances, on the grounds that this is in every other way a pretty normal, boring divorce case that will ultimately be decided on the merits. It’s certainly possible that some bad actors might try to get involved in an effort to pursue a ruling that might draw a distinction between “traditional” marriage and same-sex marriage. I don’t know how that might happen, and I don’t know if it can happen if defendant Ortiz objects to their intervention, I just know that the there are definitely people who would like to intervene in this fashion and for this purpose, and I wouldn’t put it past them. Anyway, I’ll try to keep an eye on this one, just to see how it goes. The trial begins today, so we may know more soon.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

Precinct analysis: Beto’s range in the 2022 primaries

When you get 91.34% of the vote in an election, as Beto did in the Democratic primary for Governor, there’s usually not a whole lot of interesting data beneath the surface. But you never know until you look, so I went and got the numbers for the Dem gubernatorial primary by county and sorted them by Beto’s percentage. Here are some highlights from that:


County      Diaz%  Cooper%   Beto%   Voters
===========================================
Maverick   16.40%   10.48%  60.71%    6,653
Frio        8.14%    6.87%  71.72%    2,518
Dimmit     10.41%    7.97%  71.98%    1,845
Duval       8.18%    6.73%  75.62%    1,858
Webb        8.55%    5.29%  77.02%   17,675
Jim Wells   8.23%    6.57%  78.71%    3,866
Cameron     6.99%    4.71%  81.46%   19,705
Hidalgo     6.44%    3.87%  81.68%   37,309
Jefferson   2.35%   12.72%  83.33%   12,637
El Paso     2.93%    2.14%  91.61%   37,017
Fort Bend   2.64%    3.69%  92.02%   39,613
Harris      2.10%    3.22%  92.83%  157,880
Nueces      2.63%    2.52%  93.17%   13,426
Dallas      1.98%    3.14%  93.53%  126,203
Tarrant     2.18%    3.03%  93.77%   73,413
Bexar       2.30%    1.38%  94.13%   94,334
Montgomery  2.25%    1.87%  94.13%   10,585
Travis      2.98%    0.85%  95.00%  108,831
Denton      1.85%    2.01%  95.09%   27,340
Collin      1.77%    1.36%  95.48%   36,368

I limited myself to counties where at least a thousand votes had been cast, though obviously I didn’t include all of them. Maverick was easily Joy Diaz’s best county, while Jefferson (where he’s from) was Michael Cooper’s best. I didn’t include the other two candidates in this table because they weren’t interesting, but Inno Barrientez had his best showing in Frio County, with 8.02% of the vote.

You might look at some of these places and think that this is a sign of weakness on Beto’s part, since the low-scoring places are mostly heavily Latino. I would invite you to consider how he did in these counties in 2018 before you arrive at such a conclusion.


County    Beto 18  Beto 22
==========================
Maverick   22.13%   61.71%
Frio       23.84%   71.72%
Dimmit     29.07%   71.98%
Duval      41.58%   75.62%
Webb       41.65%   77.02%
Jim Wells  40.24%   78.71%
Cameron    46.77%   81.46%
Hidalgo    50.50%   81.68%

Sema Hernandez got over 60% in Maverick, almost 60% in Frio, and over 50% in Dimmit. She won a plurality in Duval, Webb, and Jim Wells, and had over 40% in Cameron and Hidalgo. I largely pooh-poohed the “Beto underperformed in the Latino counties!” hot takes in March of 2018 and I stand by that, but however you felt about those numbers then, it’s very different now.

He really crushed it in the big counties, with Collin the winner as Most Beto-est County Of Them All. You could do this same sort of comparison with 2018 as well if you wanted – Beto got 65.5% in Collin in 2018, 57.7% in Dallas, and 59.1% in Harris – but all we’re really saying is he got a lot more votes from basically the same size electorate. However you slice it, that much remains.

More data about mail ballot rejections

Keep it coming.

Thousands of Texans who attempted to vote by mail in the March primary were disenfranchised in the state’s first election conducted under a new Republican voting law. The state’s largest counties saw a significant spike in the rates of rejected mail-in ballots, most because they did not meet the new, stricter ID requirements.

Local ballot review boards met this week to finalize mail-in ballot rejections, throwing out 11,823 mail-in ballots in just 15 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters. That doesn’t include Harris County, where thousands more votes had been flagged for rejection if voters couldn’t correct them in time. The final statewide count for rejected ballots is still unknown; counties are still reporting numbers to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

The rates of rejections range from 6% to nearly 22% in Bexar County, where almost 4,000 of the more than 18,000 people who returned mail-in ballots saw their votes discarded. In most cases, ballots were rejected for failing to comply with tighter voting rules enacted by Republicans last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail, according to rejection data collected by The Texas Tribune. A few counties’ rejection rates also included ballots that arrived past the voting deadline, but problems with the new ID requirements were the overwhelming cause for not accepting votes.

The impact of the ID requirements was particularly pronounced in several larger counties, including Bexar. In Dallas County, ID issues were to blame for nearly all of the lost votes reported, accounting for 682 of the 694 ballots that were rejected. Most ballots that were rejected because of the ID requirements were missing an ID number altogether. The county had an overall rejection rate of 6.5%

In Hays County, a suburban county south of Austin, all but one of the 208 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The county’s total rejection rate was 8.2%.

In Hidalgo County, just five of the 526 mail-in ballots that were rejected were scrapped because they arrived late. Most were rejected because of the ID requirements, officials said. The county had an overall rejection rate of 19.4%.

In Williamson County, roughly 73% of the 521 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The second main reason for rejection was late returns. Overall, 11.6% of ballots were rejected in the county.

[…]

Early rejection rates hovered between 30% to 40% but dropped as thousands of voters worked to safeguard their votes, often by visiting county elections offices after their ballots were flagged for rejection. Hundreds of other voters canceled their mail-in ballots and opted to vote in person instead, according to county data.

That included more than 300 voters in El Paso County who had initially requested absentee ballots but voted in person, with several voters surrendering their ballots at polling places. The county ended the election with a 16% rejection rate, throwing out 725 votes — 94% of them because of the ID rules.

“In the 2020 primary, we rejected 39 ballots,” Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso, said ahead of election day when the county had flagged more than a thousand ballots for review. “You don’t have to be a math wizard to see it.”

But the opportunity to resolve rejections — or to alternatively head to a polling place — was out of reach for some voters. County officials have said mail-in voters often include people for whom voting in person can be a challenge or who are unable to travel to the county elections office, which for voters in some counties can be a long distance away.

Voters facing a rejected ballot because of ID issues were also directed to the state’s new online tracker to try to validate their information, but technical issues with the tracker’s setup shut out nearly a million registered voters from even accessing it.

Under state law, a voter must provide both a driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number to log in to the tracker; both numbers must be on file in their voter record even though voters are required to provide only one number when they first register to vote.

Despite the secretary of state’s office’s efforts to backfill ID numbers in the state’s voter rolls, more than 700,000 voters lacked one of those ID numbers on their voter records as of Dec. 20. Another 106,911 voters didn’t have either number.

It’s likely not all of those voters are eligible to vote by mail, but the barrier risked hindering enough of Kara Sands’ voters that she pulled references to the online ballot tracker from the guidance she was providing Nueces County voters. Sands, the Republican elected county clerk, said most of the older voters in her county first registered to vote with a Social Security number and that remained the only ID on file for them.

“Why am I going to send them [materials saying] ‘Go here to fix it’ knowing they can’t fix it?” Sands said in an interview ahead of election day.

See here for yesterday’s post about the Bexar County experience. We still need to know how this broke down by party – given that fewer Republicans chose to vote by mail, it’s extremely likely that more Democratic ballots were rejected, but it may be that on a percentage basis they were equivalent – and we still need to distinguish between rejected applications and rejected ballots, as well as who did and didn’t vote in person afterwards. I don’t recall seeing a figure about how many registrations lacked one or both of SSNs and drivers license numbers before now, so it would be good to know as well how many people who did fill out the ballot correctly, with the proper voter ID information, were still rejected because the state database was incomplete. I could see that as a basis for another lawsuit, with the goal of halting all further rejections until the state can prove that its database is fully up to date, but that might be moot by November, and I don’t know what other relief a voter could ask for.

The Associated Press takes a crack at this, and offers a bit of partisan data.

Although the final number of discounted ballots will be lower, the early numbers suggest Texas’ rejection rate will far exceed the 2020 general election, when federal data showed that less than 1% of mail ballots statewide were rejected.

“It took me three tries and 28 days but I got my ballot and I voted,” said Pamiel Gaskin, 75, of Houston. Like many rejected mail voters, she did not list a matching identification number that Texas’ new law requires.

For now, the numbers do not represent how many Texas ballots were effectively thrown out. Voters had until Monday to “fix” rejected mail ballots, which in most cases meant providing identification that is now required under a sweeping law signed last fall by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

New requirements include listing an identification number — either a driver’s license or a Social Security number — on the ballot’s carrier envelope. That number must match the county’s records. If a ballot is rejected, voters could add an ID number via an online ballot tracking system, go to the county’s election offices and fix the problem in person, or vote with a provisional ballot on election day.

County election officers say they worked feverishly to contact those voters in time, in many cases successfully, and a full and final tally of rejected ballots in Texas is expected to come into focus in the coming days.

But already, scores of mail ballots have been disqualified for good.

[…]

The AP obtained reports from 120 counties — nearly half of the 254 in Texas — through county websites and contacting all counties that had not posted a report publicly.

In Texas’ largest county, around Houston, Harris County officials said more than 11,000 mail ballots had been flagged for rejection as of March 2. But in the county’s preliminary report that is dated a day later, the number of rejected mail ballots was listed at 3,277. On Tuesday, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was stepping down following a bungled vote count.

Houston Democrats have been among the most outspoken over Texas’ new voting laws, which they say are designed to weaken minority turnout. But Republican-leaning counties struggled with the new rules as well.

In Parker County, which former President Donald Trump carried by a 4-to-1 margin in 2020, the county reported 250 mail ballots as rejected or pending out of 1,100 mail votes — about 23%. Along the Texas coast in Nueces County, which Trump narrowly won, the rejection rate was 8%.

According to the county reports, in the five counties won by Trump that had the most mail-in voters, a combined 4,216 mailed ballots were rejected or still pending after the day of the election, a rate of 21% of the total. In the counties won by Biden with the most mail-in voters, which include most of Texas’ biggest cities, a combined 11,190 votes were similarly rejected or pending, which amounted to 13%.

Kara Sands, the election administrator in Nueces County, said her office pressed voters to include more than one identification number as a guardrail against having their ballot rejected. But she said her office wasn’t inundated with voter frustration.

“We really didn’t get a lot of folks complaining about that,” she said.

Texas holds primary runoffs in May, and elections officials say their goal now is to educate voters to avoid a repeat next time. Christopher Davis, the elections administrator in Williamson County, said the final rejection rate of 11.5% was “by far the highest we have ever seen” in the county of more than 600,000 people.

“The hope is we knock down that rejection rate,” he said.

Interesting that those five deep red counties had a higher rate of rejection than the blue counties, though there were fewer total votes there. Likely that’s a function of the blue counties being more populous, though that also suggests that a greater percentage of total votes were affected in the red counties. For comparison, the AP story notes that a total of about 8,300 mail ballots were rejected in the 2020 election, which was out of 11 million ballots cast. Every way you look at it, this was an exponential increase.

And Talking Points Memo was also on this.

The rejection rates are staggering. In booming Collin County, for example, nearly 14% of mail-in votes were ultimately rejected, the election administrator there told TPM.

In Harris County, Texas’ largest and home to Houston, a whopping 6,888 ballots were ultimately rejected “as a direct result of Senate Bill 1,” according to a statement from the county to TPM — nearly 19% of mail-in ballots. By comparison only, 135 of the 48,473 votes cast in the 2018 primary were rejected, the statement said — three tenths of a percent.

“That is apocalyptic. It calls into question whether this is even a free and fair election,” said James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “The sheer, catastrophically high rate of rejections has been very bad.”

Unlike many others, [Monica] Emery was able to fix her ballot, filling out multiple forms to “cure” the error in the days following Election Day, and consulting with attorneys and election officials to make sure her vote counted. Finally, she received word from the county on Monday, on the last possible day to fix ballot issues, that her vote had been tallied. (Texas’ new online “ballot tracker” website apparently didn’t get the memo: It continued to label her ballot “rejected.”)

But Emery, a retiree in the Dallas area, was one of the lucky ones. She’s “perfectly healthy.” She lives near her polling place. She knows her county officials and they had the bandwidth to help her. And she had additional help from multiple lawyers who she’d contacted for help. But what about her son, a pilot in the Air Force currently living in the United Kingdom? What about her elderly friend down the road, living with long COVID? Would they have been able to handle a tricky rejection letter? Would they have received word that their ballots had been rejected in time? She doubted it.

Lawmakers, Emery said, “are making it harder than it needs to be to do a real simple thing like voting by mail.”

[…]

In Travis County, home to Austin, 16% of the roughly 11,200 mail-in ballots were initially rejected, and only half of voters were able to cure those rejections in time to be counted, said Victoria Hinojosa of the Travis County clerk’s office.

Almost three of four rejected ballots were from Democrats, and most rejected ballots had “ID issues,” Hinojosa told TPM.

In Williamson County, north of Austin, 11.5% of ballots were rejected in the final tally — “absolutely higher than anything we’ve ever encountered before,” Elections Administrator Chris Davis told Austin’s NPR station KUT. In El Paso County, the final rejection rate was about 16%, or 725 mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reported.

In Collin County, which includes a chunk of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and is experiencing meteoric population growth, the ballot rejection rate right after the election hovered around 15%, down from a peak of 25% at the beginning of voting. After the curing period, that number ticked down slightly to a 13.7% rejection rate, or 828 ballots rejected.

“Unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed during the legislative session turned out to be true,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, which is part of a coalition of groups that sued over the law in September. “It’s very frustrating.”

“I can tell you, almost the whole thing is SB1-related,” Collin County Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet told TPM of the rejections. “If we had rejections before SB1, it was usually in the single digits.”

Sherbet said that nearly all of the rejections stemmed from missing ID numbers on the original voter file, ballot application or ballot itself. In some cases, older voters who’d aged out of driving tried to vote with their new state ID number, which didn’t match the old driver’s license number on their registration.

He lacked data on the party split, but said that it’s likely more Republican voters were hurt by the law’s new provisions, since roughly 1,600 more of them voted by mail in his county.

[…]

The chaos unleashed by the new mail-in ballot requirements was “very predictable,” Josh Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told TPM.

“The legislators were warned multiple times throughout hearings on these bills for the better part of a year that requiring voters to supply drivers license numbers or partial Social Security numbers, whichever of two you used to register to vote, would likely to be a problem for many Texans — especially given that most of the Texans who automatically qualify for mail-in ballots are over 65 and likely registered decades ago,” he said.

Less predictable is who exactly the confusing new requirements will hurt. While much of Republicans’ antagonism towards voting by mail stems from former President Donald Trump’s efforts to toss ballots in 2020, it’s not clear that knotting up the system will hurt Democratic voters more than Republican ones.

That “scattershot” strategy, Blank said, is due to the virtual nonexistence of voter fraud. It’s legislating a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It’s one thing to make unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud,” he said. “It’s another to reject hundreds of thousands of ballots, which is what Texas is on the path to do in November if this primary is any indication.”

As this story notes, the “ballot curing” process, in which voters whose mail ballots lacked the correct ID number had until Monday to fix them, likely will reduce the eventual total, which started at about 27,000. But doing that isn’t easy for everyone – some voters don’t have reliable Internet access, some can’t drive to the election administrator’s office, and so on.

Finally, because it took me longer than it should have to find this on Twitter, here’s most of the Harris County data I’ve been wanting:

Again, more Dem mail ballots overall, but a higher rejection rate among Republicans – 17.6% of all Dem mail ballots, and 22.0% of all GOP mail ballots. Still more Dem votes rejected, but in a scenario where the mail votes are distributed more evenly, like in 2018, that’s going to bite the Republicans. The Chron story that these tweets are based on is here. In response to a question from me, Scherer also reported that “13 people with rejected ballots ended up voting in person”, which obviously ain’t much. Makes me think that will be the cases around the state as well.

Of course, as I said yesterday and as noted in the AP story, we can do a lot to improve things for November, and we have the May primary runoff and special election to practice. But man, that will be an expensive and labor-intensive process, and it’s so completely unnecessary. You will note that Abbott and Sen. Bryan Hughes have been studiously avoiding the press on this, because what can they actually say? Or more likely, why would anyone think they cared? At least we have the rhetorical turf to ourselves for now. Whatever else we do, we need to get folks mad and motivated over this. Because – say it with me now – nothing will change until people lose elections over this crap. That’s the one sure thing we can do. Daily Kos has more.

Precinct analysis: Final 2022 primary vote totals from those counties of interest

At the end of early voting, I posted some totals from various counties around the state. I noted at the time it was an imprecise comparison since I included final 2018 turnout numbers as the comparison point for 2022 and said I’d update that table when voting was over. Well, voting is over, so let’s return to that table and see what we can see.


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Bell            7,282     18,149     9,089    20,912
Bexar          81,408     67,977    94,334    87,277
Brazoria       10,085     24,376    11,331    30,541
Brazos          5,131     12,365     4,611    16,430
Cameron        14,123      4,003    19,705    10,504
Collin         34,669     66,078    36,368    79,431
Comal           4,150     17,662     4,847    23,874
Dallas        123,671     80,583   126,203    86,551
Denton         27,025     49,474    27,340    68,104
El Paso        54,184     12,096    37,017    18,240
Ellis           4,243     15,906     5,376    18,536
Fort Bend      29,322     34,707    39,613    45,582
Hays           11,397     11,881    12,972    15,475
Hidalgo        37,739      7,050    37,309    15,042
Johnson         2,618     12,280     2,485    17,085
Lubbock         5,900     21,964     5,599    27,552
Maverick        6,300        111     6,653       623
Montgomery      9,701     48,921    10,585    71,451
Nueces         12,345     12,553    13,426    18,871
Smith           4,704     22,826     6,362    27,668
Starr           6,729         15     3,410     1,089
Tarrant        71,876    105,317    73,410   129,628
Travis        113,070     39,177   108,831    46,416
Webb           21,137      1,426    17,675     2,963
Williamson     25,681     35,675    26,067    47,431

The first thing you might notice is that the final numbers for Starr and Maverick counties are less than the final EV totals I had. How can that be? I double-checked the final EV totals on the SOS webpage, and they are now as they were then, 6,895 for Maverick and 5,188 for Starr. I may not know much, but I know that election totals go up, not down. How do I explain this?

I went and looked at the Starr County Elections page to see what I could find. What I found is that the turnout numbers they presented for the Democratic and Republican primaries are indeed different than what the SOS reported for the gubernatorial races, by a fair amount. While there were 3,410 votes cast in the Governor’s race on the Democratic side in Starr, and 1,089 on the Republican side, total turnout for Democrats was given as 6,456, with 1,444 as the total for Republicans. You can see if you scroll through that some races, like the CD28 Dem primary, got a lot more votes than the gubernatorial primary. I figured maybe the action was a bit heavier downballot, and that seemed to be true on the Dem side in that there were a lot more votes cast in the eight Justice of the Peace races. There were still undervotes, which were easier to comprehend as they were a lot closer to the “total votes” figures for each race, but if you added up all the votes in those eight JP precincts, you get the 6,456 and 1,444 figures cited.

Make of that what you will. The transition from the “actual total turnout regardless of who voted in what race” to the “total that actually voted in this race” was jarring, in this case because the undervote rate was so low. I have no idea what it might have been in 2018, so I can’t draw any conclusions. As for Maverick County, I couldn’t find a report from their website, just what the SOS had. Insert shrug emoji here.

Anyway. I didn’t have an agenda for this post, just an intention to keep the promise made before. I’ve got some other posts about primary voting in the works and will run those in the coming days.

2022 primary early voting statewide

Turnout information for early voting for all counties is available on the Secretary of State website. They used to only have this for the 30 most populous counties, which skewed things in a Democratic direction, but a law passed in 2019 required the data to be made available for all counties. Now that early voting has been completed, let’s see what the totals looked like in other counties of interest around the state.

Unfortunately, we can’t make a direct comparison for some of the counties I was interested in because as noted the SOS only has EV data for thirty counties. So what I did instead was collect the final turnout information for the 2018 Senate primaries in both parties. What that means is that the data below is a bit skewed, since we’re comparing EV turnout to overall turnout. Even there, “overall turnout” is a bit misleading since there are always undervotes, and the data I’ve captured for 2018 doesn’t include that. The 2022 numbers includes everyone who showed up, the 2018 data only has the ones who voted in their Senate races. It’s the best I can do. Here’s what it looks like:


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Bell            7,282     18,149     4,550     9,574
Bexar          81,408     67,977    60,033    50,025
Brazoria       10,085     24,376     6,809    20,323
Brazos          5,131     12,365     2,241     7,902
Collin         34,669     66,078    20,784    43,779
Comal           4,150     17,662     3,040    13,530
Dallas        123,671     80,583    66,109    38,928
Denton         27,025     49,474    14,683    37,288
El Paso        54,184     12,096    20,320     9,199
Ellis           4,243     15,906     2,479     8,136
Fort Bend      29,322     34,707    25,646    28,275
Hays           11,397     11,881     7,316     8,210
Johnson         2,618     12,280     1,224     8,175
Lubbock         5,900     21,964     3,267    17,184
Montgomery      9,701     48,921     6,052    41,596
Nueces         12,345     12,553     6,682     9,962
Smith           4,704     22,826     3,933    15,481
Tarrant        71,876    105,317    38,674    70,021
Travis        113,070     39,177    58,329    23,357
Williamson     25,681     35,675    14,558    26,672

For the most part, nothing terribly exciting. Overall Democratic turnout is about 627K, about 62% of the 2018 Senate race total of 1.04 million. Republicans are at about 1.02 million, or about 66% of the way to the 1.55 million they had in their Senate primary. While I talked about the “premier races” driving turnout statewide in the last entry, conditions in an individual county can vary. High profile and/or expensive races for Congress, County Judge, or other local offices can have an effect. Different counties have different patterns for how much of the vote is cast early versus on Election Day. We also have to consider the effect of SB1 on mail ballots. So far this year there have been 49,888 Republican primary ballots cast by mail, compared to 71,329 for the Dems. We don’t know the total figures for 2018, but a look at the top 30 county numbers makes it clear that Republicans used mail ballots a lot more four years ago.

So overall I don’t see too much that stands out. The one place that is a bit remarkable is El Paso, where Democratic voting is down quite a bit from 2018. We know that Beto was a big draw overall in El Paso, more so in the general, but remember that in 2018 there was also the primary to succeed Beto in Congress, and it was a fairly expensive race that featured then-County Judge and now Rep. Veronica Escobar. I suspect that drove some people to the polls as well.

What about the South Texas/Rio Grande Valley counties that shifted red in 2020? Here’s the same sample I looked at before, updated for the 2022 numbers:


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Cameron        14,123      4,003    14,500     6,455
Hidalgo        37,739      7,050    31,924    10,398
Maverick        6,300        111     6,895       440
Starr           6,729         15     5,188       969
Webb           21,137      1,426    13,384     1,499

Definitely more participation on the Republican side, exceeding the final 2018 totals in all five counties, though overall those numbers are still quite low compared to the Dems. Democratic numbers in Cameron and Maverick have also topped their 2018 counterparts, and are not far behind in Hidalgo and Starr. I’m a little puzzled by Webb, since that’s the center of the CD28 primary battle, but maybe that’s a mostly-vote-on-Election-Day place. We’ll see tomorrow. Have you voted yet?

Some DAs refuse to enforce Abbott’s anti-trans order

More like this, please.

District attorneys in five of the largest counties in Texas on Thursday announced that they will not comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) and state attorney general Ken Paxton’s (R) directive that state agencies begin investigating gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths.

The district attorneys of Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Nueces and Fort Bend counties condemned the directive in a statement issued Thursday. The group, which is comprised of five Democratic district attorneys, slammed Abbott and Paxton’s characterization of gender-affirming care for minors as “child abuse.” They declared Abbott and Paxton’s recent rhetoric is an “onslaught on personal freedoms” that is on its face “un-American.”

“We also want to be clear: we will enforce the Constitution and will not irrationally and unjustifiably interfere with medical decisions made between children, their parents, and their medical physicians,” the district attorneys wrote. “We trust the judgment of our state’s medical professionals, who dedicate themselves to providing the highest degree of care not only for our transgender youth, but for all youth in our communities.”

The group of district attorneys also assured parents that they are “safe” to continue seeking gender-affirming care for their children.

“We will not allow the Governor and Attorney General to disregard Texan children’s lives in order to score political points,” they wrote.

See here for the background. A copy of the DAs’ letter is embedded in the story. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has issued a similar statement, but his is a civil law office, not a criminal law office. I’d very much like to know where Harris County DA Kim Ogg – and every other Democratic DA in this state – is on this. As others have noted, AG opinions are non-binding, and it’s not at all clear that Abbott’s order is enforceable – remember how he himself admitted that his no-mask-mandate executive order could not be enforced? This is entirely discretionary, so take a stand. Someone in power needs to be standing up for these kids and their families.

Injunction granted in lawsuit over criminal penalties for election officials who encourage voting by mail

That’s a somewhat complicated headline for this.

A new Texas law that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots likely violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

Following a testy three-hour hearing earlier in the day, Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the rule against Harris County’s election administrator until the rest of a lawsuit plays out. Although the scope of Rodriguez’s preliminary injunction is limited, the judge dealt the first legal blow to new elections restrictions and voting changes Republican lawmakers enacted last year.

The injunction applies to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and local county prosecutors in Harris, Travis and Williamson counties.

The state is expected to quickly appeal the ruling. The lawsuit was brought by Harris County election administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who is appointed to help register voters in Travis and Williamson counties.

Feb. 18 is the last day for counties to receive applications for mail-in ballots for the March 1 primary.

Rodriguez previewed his order throughout a Friday morning hearing during which he repeatedly pressed the state’s attorneys — with increasing exasperation — to fill in what he cataloged as ambiguities in the new law. The challenged provision makes it a state jail felony for election officials to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it.

Rodriguez took particular issue with the lack of a clear definition for what constitutes soliciting when talking to voters, even those 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail under the state’s strict rules.

“It has a chilling effect,” Rodriguez said while questioning a state attorney Friday morning. “They don’t know when they’re going to run afoul of this vague [law].”

His comments followed testimony from Longoria and Morgan, who said they feared the civil and criminal penalties that could come from violating the broad prohibition.

Longoria said her office was now taking a “passive” approach to voter outreach in regard to voting by mail, with staffers “gingerly” weighing their words while answering voters’ questions about their options.

“When it comes to voting by mail, I have to be very careful with my words,” Longoria said from the witness stand. “I stop mid-sentence sometimes at town halls. … I’m tentative to overreach at the moment.”

Morgan testified that she was concerned the law applied even to volunteers like her, given that her role is formally certified by county election offices. She offered examples of voters she no longer felt she could help navigate the vote-by-mail process. That included an 88-year-old voter whom Morgan would typically call at the start of every year to remind her that she has to reapply for mail-in ballots.

State attorneys said that the law did not apply to volunteers like Morgan and argued the government can prohibit interactions between local election officials and voters without running afoul of the First Amendment.

[…]

And even the state’s witness — Keith Ingram, the Texas secretary of state’s director of elections — indicated the threat of prosecution loomed over election officials. While Ingram was on the stand, Rodriguez presented him with hypothetical interactions between Longoria and voters, asking if she could recommend voting by mail to someone who appeared to qualify.

“I would be very careful about that,” Ingram responded. “You wouldn’t want to recommend” voting by mail as an option “because you’d be worried about prosecution,” he said.

Throughout the hearing, Rodriguez also pressed for the reasoning behind the anti-solicitation provision, interrupting the state’s questioning of Ingram in search of an answer. Ingram said he didn’t know the purpose of the provision.

Eventually, Will Thompson of the Texas attorney general’s office told Rodriguez that the provision was meant to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail, indicating the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

“We’re not taking the position that the Legislature is opposed to voting by mail,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean the Legislature wants resources to be used toward nudging people toward voting by mail.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. The Statesman has a couple of key bits from the ruling:

In his order, Rodriguez rejected Paxton’s argument that the solicitation ban targets government speech, which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because the state is allowed to regulate how public employees perform official duties.

But, the judge noted, Longoria and Morgan do not work for the state. Longoria is employed by Harris County, and Morgan is a volunteer registrar.

Rodriguez also rejected Paxton’s claim that granting the injunction would interfere with the orderly operation of Texas elections. The judge said his order does not affect any voting procedures, change the vote-by-mail process or affect voting deadlines or eligibility.

“Nor does it require that election officials start soliciting applications to vote by mail — it simply prevents the imposition of criminal and civil penalties against officials for encouraging people to vote by mail if they are eligible to do so,” Rodriguez wrote.

None of that will stop the Fifth Circuit from doing what the Republicans ask them to do since that’s what they believe their job is, but at least he tried. For anyone who thinks that it’s hysterical to imagine Longoria or Morgan being prosecuted for these actions, Rob Icsezen and Dana DeBeauvoir would like to have a word with you.

Reporter Edward McKinley and plaintiffs’ attorney Sean Morales-Doyle have good Twitter threads with more details, so go check them out. The main argument was that this provision of SB1 criminalizes speech on the basis of its content and the viewpoint expressed, since Longoria could talk all day about not voting by mail but risked arrest if she said the opposite. This is a preliminary injunction, and whether it survives the Fifth Circuit or not there will be a trial on the merits later this year, and you can bank on it going all the way to SCOTUS. The Supreme Court is occasionally solicitous of the First Amendment, if it approves of the speech in question, so who knows what they might do. In the meantime, we have a small victory, for now, against SB1. There will be a lot more litigation over the rest of that law to come. The Chron has more.

The CDC gets in on the “track COVID in the wastewater” project

Good to see.

U.S. public health officials are expanding their monitoring of Covid-19 in sewage, which has become a crucial early warning for surges of new cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week began sharing virus wastewater trends on its public-facing Covid data website. And the agency is in the midst of expanding the number of places from which raw sewage gets monitored for rising or falling waves of disease, adding hundreds of new sites in the coming months.

The U.S. struggle to track Covid in real-time has been one of the biggest frustrations of the pandemic. Early on, testing capabilities were only a fraction of what was needed. At-home tests, now more plentiful, mostly don’t get reported to health authorities. And even when local health departments and health care providers do get data, consolidating it for real-time analysis has been a challenge.

But with wastewater, the sewage – and the data it contains – keeps flowing.

Paying attention to that data can alert health officials to prepare medical surge teams, send out mobile testing units and to arrange for adequate supplies. It’s also a useful tool for health officials to help confirm what they’re seeing from other sources.

“The advantage wastewater surveillance has is that it’s not dependent on human behavior, beyond using the bathroom,” said Amy Kirby, program lead for CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System. “As the dynamics of the pandemic change, it remains an accurate measure.”

[…]

State and local health departments have been using, and publishing, the data since relatively early in the pandemic. The CDC has been monitoring it as well with Kirby’s program watching for SARS-CoV-2 signs in wastewater since 2020. Many cities track and publish the data on their own: Boston, Miami and dozens of others all make at least some data available.

To help get more places watching their wastewater, the CDC has convened working groups with state and local health officials who already use wastewater to track Covid levels. And they’re offering guidance and information sharing to help bring new sites online. As of Friday, the agency has begun posting wastewater data from 255 towns, cities, municipalities and other places.

The CDC has also contracted with a company called LuminUltra to collect wastewater data from 500 sites; about 200 are online so far. Kirby said the agency has identified hundreds more sites that it wants to enroll.

See here for another national tracking project. I also came across another dashboard, the Biobot Network of Wastewater Treatment Plants, which includes two Texas counties (Kaufman and Travis), though neither was up to date at the time. The CDC’s tracker is here. As the story notes, this is a macro view that can’t tell you how many people are sick, and it doesn’t cover all of the country, just places that are connected to sewer systems. But it’s a useful look at the data, which can tell you where the virus is going ahead of testing regimes, and we can use all the data we can get.

Ken Paxton cannot be trusted to prosecute anyone

Scary story:

The article is paywalled, but I got to see a Google doc copy of it. This happened to Rob Icsezen, the host of the H-Town Progressive podcast and a Democratic appointee of the Early Voting Ballot Board and Signature Verification Committee for the 2020 election. I will summarize what happened:

– A Republican poll watcher showed up to observe what the EVBB and SVC were doing. Existing law said poll watchers were allowed at the former, but said nothing about the latter. Icsezen interpreted this to mean that they weren’t allowed to observe the SVC, checked his interpretation with the Harris County Attorney, which approved his decision, and turned the poll watcher away.

– The poll watcher complained to the Harris County GOP, who called the Secretary of State, who called Icsezen and said he was wrong, the poll watcher needed to be allowed in to observe the SVC. Icsezen did so. According to the story, this all took place within a few hours, and according to other members of both groups who the author spoke to, it was no big deal at the time.

– An investigator with the AG’s Election Integrity Unit spoke to Icsezen in December of 2020, and apparently concluded that this was basically a misunderstanding of an unclear law, and did not warrant further action.

– The Harris County GOP reacted angrily to this and sent a letter to Ken Paxton demanding he take action or else “we have no confidence that the Attorney General will uphold any of our election laws”.

– So Paxton, ever the coward, convened a grand jury in Montgomery County – not Harris, where this alleged “crime” took place, but the very friendly confines of Montgomery County – and presented his case. Which, despite this being Montgomery County, and despite it being entirely his show, declined to indict Icsezen on whatever charges Paxton had dreamed up.

– Note that Paxton had previously tried to indict Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir on similarly flimsy charges in 2020, but a grand jury in Williamson County – again, not where the alleged “crime” took place – declined to indict.

– The only reason we know any of this is because Paxton put out a whiny press release complaining about his inability to get a Montgomery County grand jury to give him what he wanted.

So yeah, this is the guy who wants unlimited power to prosecute “election fraud” – which, evidence would suggest he’s not very good at – and is now sending out the howler monkeys against the Court of Criminal Appeals in order to get his way. Doesn’t exactly fill you with pride and confidence in our justice system, does it?

I repeat: We need to get more kids vaccinated

Come on, Houston.

In spite of the spread of the omicron variant, national COVID-19 vaccination rates for children ages 5-11 remain low. The same is true for children in Harris County, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of CDC data.

Of Harris County’s children aged 5-11, only 18.2% of them are fully vaccinated; 22.2% have received one dose. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced the FDA authorization of their COVID-19 vaccine on October 29, 2021.

In Texas, most counties have low vaccination rates. Only 34 of Texas’ 254 counties have child vaccination rates above 10%.

When compared to other counties in the U.S. with child populations over 100,000 Harris County comes near the bottom of the list when ranked by vaccination rate.

At 13% fully vaccinated, Harris County’s child vaccination rate is barely higher than Dallas County’s (11%), lower than Bexar County’s (14%) and is about half of Travis County’s (26%).

That 18.2% cited appears to be a typo – according to both the embedded image in the story and the Kaiser Health News story, the actual figure is 12.8% for Harris. Half of what Travis County has done to this point, in other words. We have to do better than that.

And as a reminder why, there’s this.

Vaccines continued to provide strong protection against death from COVID-19 in December, even against the new omicron variant, according to state data released Friday.

Unvaccinated Texans were 16 times as likely to die from the virus in December, and were two times as likely to test positive for it. That gap has shrunk from the fall, likely due to omicron’s increased transmissibility.

The divide was most evident for Texans between 65 and 75 years old, who were 19 times more likely to die from COVID if they were unvaccinated. Nearly 80,000 COVID deaths have been reported in Texas since the pandemic began, the majority of them in 2021, when vaccines became available. Just under 1,600 deaths were reported to the state in December.

Yes, not being vaccinated is not the same risk for a 5-year-old as it is for a 75-year-old. But still, there are a lot more kids in the hospitals these days, and the little ones can certainly spread COVID to their elders. Get them their shots already.

Don’t expect the absentee ballot fiasco to improve

Things are working as planned.

Signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in September, the voting law known as Senate Bill 1 contained an array of new restrictions on the state’s voting process and narrowed local control of elections.

Among its many provisions — and the earliest to be tested — are new rules for voting by mail. Absentee voters are now required to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number on their applications for a mail-in ballot. Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record or their application will be rejected.

Regular mail-in voters must submit new applications each year, and when counties began accepting them this year, the rejection rates were staggering. Hundreds of applications were deficient, in some cases missing an ID number. In other cases, voters had listed a number that didn’t appear to be on file with the local elections office.

The secretary of state’s office has been working to backfill its records to include both driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers for most voters, but various Texas counties — including some of the state’s largest — did not know they were supposed to check the state’s database along with their own when trying to validate an application.

Election officials across the state said they either weren’t aware the driver’s license numbers had been uploaded to the state database, known by election administrators as TEAM, or weren’t aware that the new numbers would not sync with their local databases. To them, it appeared the numbers were missing from a voter’s record.

“There were several large counties that are offline that were not aware that they’d have to go beyond their internal systems, and I’m one of them,” said Chris Davis, the Williamson County elections administrator. (Counties that use a local database are known as “offline counties.”)

The discrepancy helped drive an initial 50% rejection rate of applications in Travis County, the “vast majority” of which officials attributed to the new rules, before offline counties learned the new driver’s license numbers had not been pushed to their local databases. The rejection rate had dropped to 27% in figures Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir released Tuesday, though the total number of applications the county received had more than doubled by then.

The rejection issues led to a public spat between DeBeauvoir, a Democrat, who criticized the state for not providing counties with comprehensive guidance, and the secretary of state’s office, which zeroed in on the county’s rejection of an “unusually large” share of applications in a press release calling on officials to correct “erroneous” rejections.

But the information gap over matching ID numbers went beyond Travis County. While “waiting to get clear instructions” from the state, Vona Hudson, the election administrator in rural Tom Green County, said she was running into ID issues with 40% to 50% of the applications coming in.

Hudson didn’t get clarity on the syncing problems until a last-minute webinar held by the secretary of state’s office Tuesday morning to address “frequently asked questions” about the new ID requirements.

In a statement this week, the governor’s office put the blame for issues with the new rules on county officials “erroneously interpreting the law” instead of asking the state for assistance.

“The bottom line is that counties should not be rejecting valid mail ballot applications,” said Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for the governor. “The Secretary of State’s office will continue to work with counties across the state to combat the misinformation being spread by county election officials and ensure that all valid mail ballot applications are processed.”

But beyond the confusion over how to match numbers, early figures released by some of the state’s largest counties showed that a bigger problem was applications coming in with no ID numbers on them at all.

For example, Bexar County initially rejected 125 applications because voters provided a driver’s license number that was not in their voter record, while 200 were rejected because the ID section was not filled out. Thirty applications were rejected because the voter submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field.

Of the 208 applications Harris County initially rejected based on the new rules, 137 were rejected because voters had not filled out the new ID requirements. As of Jan. 14, county officials said they had rejected another 172 applications that lacked ID numbers.

In its update Tuesday, Travis County said about half of the 509 applications it had rejected did not include any ID information.

County officials said they were also hamstrung in how much education they could provide voters about the new requirements. In SB 1, Republican lawmakers made it a state jail felony for an election official to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it — a broad prohibition election officials said has made them fearful that once unremarkable voter outreach efforts could now be construed as criminal.

SB 1 also made it a state jail felony for local election officials to proactively send applications to voters who did not request them, even if voters automatically qualify to vote by mail because of age. Political parties can still send out unsolicited applications on their own dime.

“It’s understandable if you’re focusing on what’s most important in a given week or a given month that you might lose track of some of these other issues, and I think that goes for secretary of state as well,” Remi Garza, the president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said of the miscommunication between the state and the counties.

But this was a foreseeable situation, said Garza, who serves as the elections administrator for Cameron County.

Voting rights advocates have panned state Republican leadership over the issues, both because the problems were forewarned and because the law’s implementation date has not allowed election officials enough time to roll out its new requirements. Over the last year, advocates questioned how voters were expected to know which ID number might be on their voter record when they aren’t required to provide both while registering to vote.

Lawmakers bear “the responsibility to foresee problems in the implementation of a law,” said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who testified on the ID issues at the Legislature.

“They are now reaping what they’ve sown,” said Slattery. “Though I should say it’s really the voter reaping what they’ve sown, which is the tragedy of all this. At the moment, it’s the voters that are facing the consequences.”

It would be nice to think that the Republicans who passed this atrocity will hear it from their voters who have been adversely affected. I just don’t think there will be that much blowback on them. For one thing, it’s still the case that only a limited number of people even can vote by mail, so the people feeling the brunt of this are a relatively small group. Of those that are Republicans – since let’s face it, those are the only ones that Greg Abbott and company care about – you have to figure that Donald Trump has made voting by mail a lot less attractive to them. And, as we have seen, Republican voters don’t seem to mind laws that make their lives worse as long as they believe that it’s making the lives of people they don’t like even more worse. So, while there is still the potential for disaster that will very much affect only Republicans in the near future, I don’t expect there to be much pressure on the people responsible for it. This was a feature, not a bug. If there isn’t a federal law to clear out some of these obstacles, we’re going to be stuck with it until we can elect enough Democrats to change the law. Given that the State Senate is pretty well out of reach for the foreseeable future, even with a great result elsewhere this is going to take some time.

Paxton thumbs his nose at open records demand

Water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Ken Paxton DGAF about government, ethics, accountability or any of that other namby-pamby stuff.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the Travis County district attorney’s determination that Paxton violated open records laws by withholding information related to his trip to Washington D.C. on the day of the Capitol insurrection was “meritless” and that his office had fulfilled its obligation under the law.

Last week, the district attorney’s office gave Paxton four days to turn over communications requested by the state’s leading newspapers relating to his trip or face a lawsuit.

On Friday, Austin Kinghorn, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, dismissed the district attorney’s findings, saying the office had provided no provisions under the state’s open records law that had been violated and implied that the newspapers had made the requests to publish stories about them.

“In each instance, complainant’ allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA and its requirements,” Kinghorn wrote. “Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following ‘numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,’ complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office’s authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants’ media outlets.”

[…]

In the letter, the attorney general’s office said the newspaper editors base their complaint on an “awareness of a small number of inconsequential documents they believe should have been produced” in public records requests and “baselessly speculate” that Paxton is failing to comply with the open records law.

Kinghorn said the “inconsequential documents” include a text message sent to Paxton’s personal cell phone by a Dallas Morning News reporter and two “spam” emails and an internal email that announced the temporary closure of an office parking garage.

See here for the background and here for a copy of Paxton’s response. This was of course the most predictable event imaginable, and basically serves as the pregame warmup for whatever comes next. Which will be a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court, and after that a million legal maneuvers by Paxton to delay, obstruct, and as feasible ignore the whole process. It will end with a final ruling from the Supreme Court sometime between now and the heat death of the universe. If somehow Ken Paxton is still in office when this is ultimately resolved, it will be incontrovertible proof that we are indeed in the darkest timeline. Adjust your expectations, is what I’m trying to say here. The Chron has more.

Sid Miller’s political consultant indicted

Well, this is interesting.

Todd Smith, a top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, was indicted Tuesday on felony charges of theft and commercial bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are doled out through Miller’s office, according to Travis County district attorney José Garza.

Smith was arrested in May, accused of taking $55,000 as part of the scheme, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Smith and others were accused of soliciting up to $150,000 to get an “exclusive” hemp license from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Smith allegedly said $25,000 would be used for a public poll on hemp. A hemp license from the state costs $100, according to the arrest warrant.

“We are holding accountable powerful actors who abuse the system and break the law,” Garza said. “Our community needs to know that no one is above the law and will face justice.”

Smith could not immediately be reached for comment but his attorneys said in a statement that their client has not broken any laws.

“We are disappointed that the Travis County District Attorney has obtained an indictment against Todd Smith, he was not invited to address the grand jury. He is not guilty of these charges and intends to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” attorneys Sam Bassett and Perry Minton said in a statement.

[…]

Miller on Tuesday evening declined immediate comment, saying he was just learning the news of the indictment from the Tribune reporter. He later went on conservative radio host Chad Hasty’s show and said he’s gonna review indictment, but he’s “not ready to throw [Smith] under the bus” and is “not surprised,” suggesting it’s politically motivated. Miller says he still doesn’t believe Smith did anything wrong.

Smith has faced scrutiny before over his conduct and ties to the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Smith promised a San Antonio businessperson an appointment with the Department of Agriculture in exchange for a $29,000 loan. And in 2016, Miller gave Smith’s wife a newly created assistant commissioner position, one of the highest-paying roles in the department.

Miller is unlikely to take this seriously, though he did dump Smith shortly afterwards. His Republican opponents have been all over the story, and I suppose it’s always best to be proactive. As for the indictment itself, I think we all know that this sort of thing either gets resolved very quickly, via a plea deal or (more likely) the charges getting tossed, or it drags out for months if not years. To whatever extent this has an effect on Miller’s re-election chances, it will be because of what has already happened. We already know what kind of a person Sid Miller is, but it never hurts to have a reminder. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Lots of mail ballot applications are being rejected now

This is a feature, not a bug.

Hundreds of Texans seeking to vote by mail in the upcoming March primary elections are seeing their applications for ballots rejected by local election offices trying to comply with stricter voting rules enacted by Texas Republicans last year.

Election officials in some of the state’s largest counties are rejecting an alarming number of mail-in applications because they don’t meet the state’s new identification requirements. Some applications are being rejected because of a mismatch between the new identification requirements and the data the state has on file to verify voters.

Under Texas’ new voting law, absentee voters must include their driver’s license number or state ID number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on their applications. If they don’t have those IDs, voters can indicate they have not been issued that identification. Counties must match those numbers against the information in an individual’s voter file to approve them for a mail-in ballot.

In Harris County, 208 applications — roughly 16% of the 1,276 applications received so far — have been rejected based on the new rules. That includes 137 applications on which voters had not filled out the new ID requirements and 71 applications that included an ID number that wasn’t in the voter’s record.

In Travis County, officials said they’ve rejected about half of the roughly 700 applications they’ve received so far, with the “vast majority” of rejections based on the new voting law.

In Bexar County, officials have rejected 200 applications on which the ID section was not filled out. Another 125 were rejected because the voter had provided their driver’s license number on the application, but that number was not in their voter record.

“It’s disturbing that our senior citizens who have relished and embraced voting by mail are now having to jump through some hoops, and it’s upsetting when we have to send a rejection letter [when] we can see they’ve voted with us by mail for years,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County election administrator.

[…]

Throughout last year’s protracted debate over the new voting law, state lawmakers were warned about potential issues that could arise from the new ID matching requirements, in part because the state does not have both a driver’s license and Social Security number for all of the roughly 17 million Texans on the voter rolls. Voters are not required to provide both numbers when they register to vote.

Last summer, the Texas secretary of state’s office indicated that 2,045,419 registered voters lacked one of the two numbers in their voter file despite the office’s efforts to backfill that information in the state’s voter rolls. Another 266,661 voters didn’t have either number on file.

Those numbers have since dropped. As of Dec. 20, 702,257 voters had only one number on file, while 106,911 didn’t have either, according to updated figures provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Meanwhile, 493,823 registered voters didn’t have a driver’s license on file, which is the first number voters are asked to provide on both applications to register to vote and applications to vote by mail.

The new law is also tripping up voters who may be unaware of the new ID requirements. Callanen said she had to reject 30 voters who submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field. Election officials in Williamson County, which has processed a total of 305 applications to vote by mail, said the same issue plagued a chunk of the applications that they rejected.

The sources of the outdated applications are unclear. While the Legislature banned county election officials from proactively sending out applications to vote by mail, even to voters who automatically qualify, voters can still receive unsolicited applications from campaigns and political parties.

This was both easily predictable and widely predicted. Since this election is a primary, and people have to request a specific party’s ballot, it would be very interesting to know how many rejections came from each party, and what percentage of the total number of requests for each party were rejected. Most likely it’s more or less evenly split, but you never know. Unintended consequences are everywhere.

I want to extend a little bit of grace to the employees of the Secretary of State’s office, who have had to do a massive update of their guidance for elections officials in a very short time. The fault lies entirely with the Republicans that shoved this travesty through, and with the raving lunatic former occupant of the White House, whose narcissism and dishonesty compelled his minions to pass such laws. But the lion’s share of the grace goes to the various elections administrators, who are on the business end of this mess. If you want a mail ballot, make sure you fill out the current form correctly, and get your request in ASAP.

Some commentary from Twitter:

That last one is more of a general comment, but you get the idea. In the meantime, Common Cause tells you how to take some control of the situation:

Voters who have applied for a mail ballot can check their status online at https://teamrv-mvp.sos.texas.gov/BallotTrackerApp/#/login. Voters who do not have internet access can call their county clerk’s office for information.

For voters planning to vote by mail in the March 1 primary election, the deadline for mail ballot applications to be received by the county’s Early Voting Clerk is Friday, February 18, 2022.

There’s more, so read the rest. Campos has more.

Paxton accused of violating open records law

Put it on his tab.

Best mugshot ever

The Travis County district attorney has determined that Attorney General Ken Paxton violated the state’s open records law by not turning over his communications from last January, when he appeared at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The district attorney gave Paxton four days to remedy the issue or face a lawsuit. The probe was prompted by a complaint filed by top editors at several of the state’s largest newspapers: the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.

In a letter hand delivered to Paxton on Thursday, the head of the district attorney’s public integrity unit said her investigation showed the attorney general’s office broke state law by withholding or failing to retain his own communications that should be subject to public release.

“After a thorough review of the complaint, the (district attorney’s) office has determined that Paxton and (his office) violated Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code,” wrote Jackie Wood, director of the district attorney’s public integrity and complex crimes unit, referring to the open records statute.

The district attorney’s office will take Paxton and his agency to court if they do not “cure this violation” within four days, Wood warned. For open-records complaints against state agencies, the law says the Travis County district attorney or the attorney general must handle them. The newspapers filed the complaint with the district attorney.

[…]

Jim Hemphill, the immediate past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Paxton may take issue with the DA’s investigations — or he could voluntarily choose to release this and other records to the public.

“It’s a rare occurrence where a requestor actually has tangible evidence,” Hemphill said. “It will be interesting to see how the attorney general responds to this.”

The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records, even if those records are stored on personal devices or public officials’ online accounts. The attorney general’s office enforces this law, determining which records are public and which are private.

On March 25, six news outlets jointly published a story that raised questions about whether Paxton was breaking open records laws.

On Jan. 4, five newspaper editors filed a complaint asking the district attorney to investigate the alleged violations. Anyone can file a complaint with a local prosecutor if they believe a public agency is withholding information in violation of the Public Information Act.

Wood’s notice to Paxton said the district attorney’s office concurred with the allegations in the editors’ complaint.

First, the editors raised concerns that Paxton’s office was using attorney-client privilege to withhold every single email and text message sent to or received by him around the time of the Jan. 6 rally, which preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Paxton and his wife were in Washington that day and appeared at the rally.

Wood said withholding all of Paxton’s communications during that week violated the law. As evidence, she noted the attorney general’s office released nearly 500 pages of communications sent to or received by First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster — including some emails that included Paxton as a recipient.

The newspaper editors also said the attorney general’s office had no policy for handling work-related records kept on personal devices or accounts.

When a Morning News reporter sent Paxton a work-related text message and another reporter requested all his messages that day, Paxton’s office responded that no responsive messages existed. A spokesman for Paxton later said the attorney general doesn’t have to retain “unsolicited and unwelcome text messages to personal phones.”

Wood noted that the attorney general’s office stated in the past that the communications of government officials were subject to retention policies and the open records law.

Finally, the editors raised concerns that Paxton was turning over other people’s communications in response to requests for his own text messages.

The DA’s investigation agreed that Paxton had not provided his own text messages with officials at the attorney general’s office in Utah — where Paxton and his wife traveled during the February freeze — and instead turned over a copy of another person’s text to Paxton. The attorney general’s office did not explain why Paxton didn’t provide his own version of the text exchange.

See here for some background. The answer to how Paxton will respond is obvious: He’ll denounce the Travis DA’s actions as unfair, biased, and partisan, and he’ll not only not comply he’ll do everything in his power to delay a court decision that might force him to comply. Honestly, even then I doubt he’ll actually comply – I’d bet he destroys records first, and dares everyone to do something about it. I don’t think anything short of handcuffs and a jail cell will move him. What in his past record suggests otherwise? As the Trib notes, the January 6 commission in Congress is also seeking records relating to communications between Paxton and Donald Trump at that time. What do you think are the odds he’ll comply with them?

We know who and what Ken Paxton is. He’s shown us, every day. I commend the newspapers for pursuing this, and the Travis County DA for taking action. It’s just that it will take more than a lawsuit to make him budge. He’s going to require a consequence he fears. We’re nowhere close to that. The DMN and the Statesman have more.

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

Savor the win, for it’s off to SCOTx next.

A state appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court injunction that allowed Harris County to impose mask requirements despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claimed state law lets the governor overturn local health mandates imposed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous virus.

Abbott hasn’t budged:Texas parents pleaded for Gov. Abbott to allow mask mandates in schools

“The Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities or officials that contradict his executive orders,” said the opinion, written by Justice Chari Kelly.

The appeals court also said the disaster act does not allow, as Abbott and Paxton argued, the governor to suspend state public health laws that give local leaders the power to impose safety rules during declared emergencies.

“(The disaster act) does not give the governor carte blanche to issue executive orders empowering him to rule the state in any way he wishes during a disaster,” Kelly said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Darlene Byrne and Justice Gisela Triana. All three justices are Democrats.

[…]

The appeal before the 3rd Court hinged on whether language in the Texas Disaster Act empowered Abbott to ban local rules enacted to protect public health.

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

• Designates the governor as “commander in chief” when addressing statewide disasters.

• Says local officials act as the governor’s designated agents during emergencies.

• States that executive orders issued under the act have the “force and effect of law.”

The appeals court, however, said Paxton and Abbott took the act’s provisions out of context.

The disaster law designates the governor as commander in chief of “state agencies, boards and commissions having emergency responsibilities” — not counties, Kelly wrote. In addition, nothing in the law limits the authority of county and local officials to respond to local disasters or public health crises, Kelly said.

“Even a statewide disaster may have distinct and disproportionate impacts in each of the state’s 254 counties and that, as a result, some measures for addressing a disaster in some counties may not be necessary or even appropriate in other counties,” Kelly wrote.

What’s more, she wrote, the disaster act lets the governor suspend “regulatory” laws that pertain to conducting state business. But Abbott sought to suspend a state law that lets local officials set public health rules in emergencies, and that law is not regulatory, the appeals court concluded.

“The Act empowers and recognizes that the Governor may issue statewide disaster declarations and that certain local officials may also issue local disaster declarations,” Kelly wrote.

“Nothing in the Act, however, suggests that these authorities are mutually exclusive,” she added.

As noted, the Third Court upheld a ruling issued in August by a Travis County district court. Note that there’s a second case, involving HISD and some other school districts, that was not part of this appeal. In this case, the three justices made the same points in the opinion that plenty of people, myself included, have been making all along about the Governor’s powers. Those judges are Democrats, and the judges on the Supreme Court are not, so we can’t just expect them to employ such thinking. Maybe they will, you never know, but you sure can’t assume it. For now, at least, the good guys have won. And even if SCOTx reverses this opinion, it’s still the case that Abbott and Paxton, by their own admission, don’t have the power to enforce Abbott’s no-mask mandate. Let’s not forget that.

Precinct analysis: The new SBOE map

Previously: New State House map, New Congressional map

I probably care more about the SBOE than most normal people do. It’s not that powerful an entity, there are only 15 seats on it, and their elections go largely under the radar. But the potential for shenanigans is high, and Democrats had about as good a shot at achieving a majority on that board as they did in the State House in 2020. Didn’t work out, and the new map is typically inhospitable, but we must keep trying. And if this nerdy political blog doesn’t care about the SBOE, then what’s even the point?

You can find the 2012 election results here and the 2020 results here. I didn’t use the 2016 results in my analysis below, but that data is here if you want to see it.


Dist   Obama   Romney Obama%Romney%     Biden    Trump Biden% Trump%
====================================================================
01   247,686  187,075  56.2%  42.4%   378,468  283,822  56.3%  42.2%
02   228,834  185,412  54.6%  44.2%   291,278  291,716  49.4%  49.4%
03   264,311  232,068  52.5%  46.1%   388,240  305,696  55.1%  43.4%
04   308,644  120,097  71.2%  27.7%   403,177  148,981  72.2%  26.7%
05   300,483  239,166  53.8%  42.8%   570,541  301,308  64.1%  33.8%
06   181,278  386,445  31.5%  67.1%   368,830  466,577  43.5%  55.0%
07   224,393  362,617  37.8%  61.1%   340,566  472,253  41.3%  57.3%
08   176,409  303,391  36.3%  62.4%   298,068  395,563  42.4%  56.3%
09   199,415  406,195  32.5%  66.3%   283,337  493,792  36.0%  62.7%
10   169,390  393,365  29.6%  68.6%   303,528  543,023  35.2%  63.0%
11   190,589  395,936  32.0%  66.5%   340,611  492,562  40.2%  58.2%
12   189,192  408,110  31.2%  67.3%   370,022  505,840  41.6%  56.8%
13   335,799  130,847  71.2%  27.7%   441,894  151,002  73.5%  25.1%
14   165,093  377,319  30.0%  68.5%   316,606  503,706  38.0%  60.4%
15   126,093  440,745  21.9%  76.7%   162,347  533,181  23.0%  75.5%

You can see the new map here, so you can visualize where these districts are. The current and soon-to-be-obsolete map is here, and my analysis of the 2020 election under that map is here.

You might note that none of the new districts look all that crazy. For the most part, the districts encompass entire counties. It’s mostly a matter of which counties are joined together. A good example of that is SBOE12, which used to be Collin County plus a slice of Dallas. In the days when Collin was deep red, that was more than enough for it to be safe Republican, but now that Collin is trending heavily Democratic – SBOE12 was a four-point win for Joe Biden last year – that won’t do. Now SBOE12 is a sprawling district that still has all of Collin but now a smaller piece of Dallas, the top end of Denton, and a bunch of smaller North Texas counties that had previously been in districts 09 and 15. In return, the formerly all-rural district 9 picks up about a quarter of Dallas, in a mirror of the strategy we’ve seen in the other maps to put heavily Democratic urban areas in with deeply Republican rural ones, to neutralize the former. District 11, which had previously been pieces of Dallas and Tarrant plus all of Parker and is now all of that plus Hood and Somervell and part of Johnson counties, is another example.

The other strategy that we see echoes of here is the more careful placement of dark red suburban counties. SBOE6, which used to be entirely within Harris County, is now hiked up a bit north to include a generous piece of Montgomery County, much as was done with CD02 and SD07, to flip it from being a Biden district back to a Trump district. Ironically, this has the effect of making SBOE8, which used to have all of Montgomery plus a lot of the counties east of Harris, more Democratic as it now wears both the eastern and western ends of Harris like earflaps. (Mutton chops also come to mind as I look at the map.) SBOE8 also picks up a piece of bright blue Fort Bend County, which had previously been in district 7. Meanwhile, over in Central Texas, SBOE5 jettisoned Comal County after it could no longer keep that district red; Comal wound up in district 10, which excised all of its Travis County population in return.

As far as the numbers go, there’s not much to say. Whether Democrats can win five or six districts will depend in the short term on whether they can hold district 2, which is actually a bit more Democratic in this alignment. In the longer term, districts 6, 8, 11, and 12 could all become competitive. District 3 is no more Democratic than any of those are Republican, but as you can see it trended a bit more blue over the decade, and it’s anchored in Bexar County, which should keep it from falling. 2022 is the one year when every district is up for re-election, and that will tell us something about how the trends we saw in 2020 are going. Maybe we’ll need to re-evaluate the prospects for change in this map, or as we’ve said before, maybe we’ll end up cursing the evil genius of it all. I mean, even as SBOE6 moved strongly towards Dems, the deficit to make up is still 100K votes. Nothing is going to come easy, if it comes at all.

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

A redistricting lawsuit twofer from MALC

One federal, one state.

The Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House has opened a second front in the legal war over the state’s new political maps.

The caucus on Wednesday turned to the state courts to challenge the constitutionality of the new state House map, arguing it violates state requirements for breaking county lines in drawing up the chamber’s 150 districts. The move comes on the heels of two lawsuits filed against the newly approved maps in federal court. The caucus on Wednesday simultaneously filed another federal lawsuit alleging the state’s new maps were drawn with discriminatory intent and violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

Texas redistricting fights have typically played out in federal courts, which decade after decade have found that lawmakers, often intentionally, flouted federal protections for voters of color in redistricting. Filed in Austin, MALC framed its federal lawsuit as an effort to “redress once again Texas’s sordid pattern of racial discrimination.”

However, the lawsuit filed in state district court in Travis County is tied to language in the state Constitution, which states that legislators drawing 150 districts for the Texas House are supposed to keep whole counties that have sufficient population to make up one House district.

MALC’s challenge centers on the reconfiguration of Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley, which breaks the county line twice to create three different districts — only one of which is wholly contained within the county. The state’s “county line rule,” MALC argues, would require two districts to be drawn within Cameron with the remaining population connected to a single neighboring district, as was the case under the map the state used for the last decade.

The new lines in Cameron, drawn over the objections of lawmakers who represent the affected areas, would afford Republicans a newly competitive state House seat in an area currently dominated by Democrats. In its federal lawsuit, MALC alleges the lines would also “severely dilute” the ability of Latinos and the Spanish-speaking community in the area to elect their preferred candidates.

The swap and the objections to it are noted in this post. This is the first state court lawsuit against the redistricting effort, though the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit will find its way there as well. The claim seems pretty straightforward. According to the population report for the State House map, HD37 has 164K voters in Cameron County and 20K in Willacy, while HD35 has 70K in Cameron and 123K in Hidalgo. All 186K voters in HD35 are in Cameron. The suit claims that according to the county rule in the state constitution, HD37 should be entirely within Cameron County, and those Willacy County voters would need to be swapped out, presumably to HD35 where about 20K of its voters would have to be in HD37. Here’s a quote from the lawsuit:

A key principle in both the plain language of the Texas Constitution itself and the Texas Supreme Court’s interpretation of the county line rule in light of Reynolds, is that for any county which has enough population for one or more representatives and also has a left-over surplus that cannot be wholly contained in the county, that surplus may only be joined in one single representative district with area from another contiguous county or counties.

Emphasis mine. I will note that HDs 35 (57-42 for Biden in 2020 and 38 (62-37 Biden) are reasonably Dem-friendly, while HD37 (51-48 Biden) is less so. Now, Willacy County was roughly 56-44 for Biden, so how Dem-friendly the HD35 portion of Cameron County is makes a difference here. I have to assume it’s better for Dems than the Willacy portion is, because otherwise the Republicans wouldn’t have bothered. Maybe they could still squeeze HD37 in a favorable way for themselves if it had to be entirely within Cameron, but in the end they didn’t. So this could be a difference maker, if the plaintiffs win.

On the federal side:

In its federal lawsuit, MALC challenges the new maps for Congress, the Texas House and the State Board of Education, saying they are intentionally discriminatory and mired in illegal racial gerrymanders. The caucus also raises specific claims on a litany of districts where they allege the Legislature packed and cracked communities of color to limit their electoral impact.

“The plans adopted by the State not only failed to increase Latino and minority opportunities for representation, they actually decreased them while increasing the number of districts in which Anglos form a majority of the eligible voter population,” the MALC complaint reads. “This turns the concept of representative democracy on its head.”

Echoing the two federal lawsuits already in the pipeline, MALC is also challenging the Legislature’s refusal to create additional districts in which Hispanic voters would control elections. Republicans, who had complete control over the redistricting process this year, declined to create those districts even as they reconfigured the congressional map to include the two additional U.S. House seats the state gained, the most of any state in this year’s reapportionment, because of its explosive growth.

See here and here for the other federal lawsuits. I don’t know what new MALC is bringing to the table, and as discussed I don’t have much faith in the federal courts on this matter, but I welcome all comers. The Statesman has more.

Comings and goings

Rep. Lloyd Doggett will run in a new district again.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Longtime U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has decided to run for reelection in Texas’ 37th Congressional District, opting to vie for one of Texas’ two new congressional districts — a bright-blue seat concentrated in Austin — rather than his current district, which reaches down to San Antonio.

Doggett announced the decision Sunday in an email to supporters and then shared it in person Monday outside Bryker Woods Elementary School in Austin.

“Nobody, me included, has any entitlement to public office, but Bryker Woods does issue reports cards,” Doggett said, “and I’m ready for my neighbors to grade my service in Congress and my devotion to the families of this city.”

Doggett currently represents the 35th Congressional District, which runs from Austin down along Interstate 35 to San Antonio. The proposed 37th District is far more compact, contained almost entirely within Travis County, home to Austin. Both are currently safely Democratic districts — and likely to remain so after redistricting.

[…]

Doggett also survived the last round of redistricting by switching districts, changing to the 35th District, which was new at the time. It was drawn to be a Hispanic-majority district, and Doggett faced a primary against then state Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. But Castro ultimately ran for the San Antonio-based 20th Congressional District after its Democratic incumbent, Charlie Gonzalez, announced his retirement.

Doggett’s chances of reelection in the new district are high. He has served in Congress since 1995 and a built a massive campaign war chest, totaling $5.4 million as of Sept. 30.

Doggett’s decision to run in CD-37 means there will be an open seat in CD-35.

Potential Democratic candidates for the 37th District have included state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Wendy Davis, the former Fort Worth state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, last year.

Doggett was first elected in what was then CD10. In the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, he moved to what was then CD25, then into CD35 as noted. I’m just going to leave this here:

Someone needs to start a project to track down everyone who has been continuously represented by Lloyd Doggett since 1995.

Rep. Doggett may or may not get some real competition for CD37. I’d make him a heavy favorite against pretty much anyone. As for CD35, that will likely draw a crowd.

Progressive firebrand and Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is likely to run for Congress in Texas’s 35th District, he told the Texas Observer in an interview.

“It’s very likely that I’m running,” says Casar, who has formed an exploratory committee to examine a run for the district that runs from Austin to San Antonio. “The maps haven’t been signed into law yet, but shortly after they are, I will make things much more official.”

[…]

The prospect of a newly open seat in a heavily Democratic majority-minority district sets the stage for a potential primary battle.

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2003, is reportedly “taking a hard look” at a run for the 35th; his southeast Austin state House district sits almost entirely within the new 35th boundaries. Also, longtime San Antonio Representative Trey Martinez Fischer requested that lawmakers draw him into the 35th, indicating that he may also run. Claudia Zapata, a progressive activist in Austin, is currently the only officially declared candidate. Casar’s home and his north-central council district are in the 37th, right along the border with the 35th.

That story is all about CM Casar, and you can read it if you want to know more about him. I’m mostly interested in the name game at this point.

Moving along, we will have a new open State House seat in Bexar County.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who bucked his party on a number of major issues this year, announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection.

In an email to constituents, Larson said he was following through on legislation he has repeatedly introduced that imposes a term limit of 12 years on any elected official at the state level.

“As a strong proponent of term limits, will follow the limits we previously proposed in this legislation,” Larson wrote.

Larson was first elected in 2010 to represent House District 122 in the San Antonio area.

He had been increasingly expected to pass on a 2022 reelection campaign as he grew disillusioned with his party and potential GOP candidates lined up for his seat. Larson was the only Republican to oppose the GOP’s priority elections bill that led House Democrats to break quorum this summer. He also was the only Republican to vote against legislation that Republican supporters argued would crack down on the teaching of critical race theory in Texas classrooms. More recently, he filed a long-shot bill during the current special session to provide rape and incest exemptions for Texas’ new near-total abortion ban, despite previously voting for it.

Rep. Larson, who had been targeted by Greg Abbott in the 2018 primary, was sure to draw challengers this primary as well. He’s also now got his 12 years in, which means he’s fully vested in the pension. That’s always a propitious time to pull the plug. As noted before the current HD122, which began the decade as the most Republican district in Bexar County, has moved sharply towards Democrats. It was also significantly changed in redistricting, and was made more red than it had been in 2020, but could still be competitive in the near future. Maybe if a more wingnutty Republican wins, that timetable could move up.

Also moving districts due to the new map:

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, announced Wednesday he is moving to run for reelection in a different House district because his current district is being redrawn to be more favorable to Republicans.

Talarico said he would run in nearby House District 50, where the Democratic incumbent, Celia Israel, is not seeking reelection as she prepares to run for Austin mayor. He announced the new campaign with the support of the biggest names in Democratic politics in Texas, including Beto O’Rourke, Wendy Davis and Joaquin Castro.

Talarico currently represents House District 52, which is set to become redder in redistricting — going from a district that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points to one that Donald Trump would have carried by 4. HD-50, meanwhile, is likely to remain solidly blue after redistricting.

[…]

Whether Talarico can avoid a competitive primary for HD-50 is an open question. Earlier Wednesday, Pflugerville City Councilman Rudy Metayer announced he was exploring a run for the seat. Metayer is also the president of the Texas Black Caucus Foundation, and he released a list of supporters topped by two of the state’s most prominent Black politicians, state Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Royce West of Dallas.

HD-50 is more diverse than the district Talarico, who is white, currently represents. In a series of tweets announcing his new campaign, Talarico prominently highlighted how he “call[s] out White supremacy on the floor,” a reference to his outspoken advocacy against Republican legislation aiming to restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” in Texas classrooms.

Talarico was part of the over 50 House Democrats who broke quorum this summer in protest of the GOP’s priority elections bill, though he was part of the first several to return, causing friction with some in his own party.

See here for more on Rep. Israel. I have to think that HD52 will still be attractive to someone on the Democratic side; that person may have a harder time of it than Rep. Talarico, but a 4-point Trump district is hardly insurmountable, and I’d bet on further change in a Dem direction. As for Talarico, I’ll be very interested to see how big a deal his coming back in the first wave from the quorum break is in his primary. I’m sure the subject will come up.

Closer to home:

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, announced Tuesday he will not seek another term to the Texas House.

Huberty, who has represented House District 127 since 2011, said in a statement that “it is time for new opportunities in life.”

“I have thought long and hard about this decision,” Huberty said. “It’s been an honor to represent the people and communities of District 127 at the Texas Capitol, and I’m proud of the work our team has accomplished.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Huberty helped spearhead reforms to the state’s school finance system, which included $6.5 billion to improve public education in the state and pay teachers, plus $5.1 billion to lower school district taxes.

Huberty said Tuesday that his “interest in and passion for public education remains at my core” and said he believed that the school finance reform legislation from 2019 “will have a lasting impact for the school children of Texas for a long time to come.”

Another fully-vested-in-the-pension guy. Funny how those things work out. Rep. Huberty, like several of his colleagues, is one of those increasingly rare serious-about-policy types, who has done some good work with public education. As his district remains pretty solidly Republican, at least in the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for is someone who isn’t a total clown emerging from the Republican primary. Say a few Hail Marys and toss some salt over your shoulder.

And speaking of Republicans with policy chops, this was not unexpected but is still bad.

Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican who often butted heads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and was known to be a key swing vote for his party, will not seek reelection.

“After thoughtful consideration and with the reassurance of my family, including my new very vocal granddaughter, I have decided not to be a candidate for re-election to the Texas Senate,” Seliger said in a statement. “I am forever grateful for my family, supporters, staff, and those who. have worked on my behalf since 2004. Thank you for placing your trust in me as your Texas State Senator.”

Seliger said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2023. He has represented Senate District 31, which covers the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin, since 2005. Prior to that, he served four terms as mayor of Amarillo.

In the Legislature, Seliger was known as an advocate issues of public education, higher education and local control. He led the Senate Higher Education Committee for three sessions between 2013 and 2017. But as parts of the Republican Party in Texas shifted toward support of private school vouchers and against policies passed in Democrat-leaning municipalities, Seliger was often criticized for not supporting those stances and derided as a “liberal.”

[…]

As recently as Monday, Seliger was still breaking with Republican leadership in what he said was deference to his constituents. He was one of the only Republicans in office who openly opposed legislation to ban employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, saying the proposal, pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, was “anti-business.” Earlier in the 30-day special session, Seliger was the sole GOP vote in the Senate against a bill that would clear the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

His maverick streak led to frequent conflict with Patrick, a conservative firebrand who presides over the Senate. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s legislative priorities: a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

There used to be a lot of Kel Seligers in the State Senate, and in the Republican Party. Now they run the gamut from Joan Huffman to Bob Hall, and the next person to be elected in SD31 is almost certainly going to be on the Bob Hall end of that spectrum. We sure better hope we can beat Dan Patrick next year.

Finally, here’s a non-legislative vacancy that may have an effect on the House delegation in 2023.

The race for Bexar County judge is wide open as the 2022 election approaches.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff confirmed last week that he would not seek reelection next year. Wolff has served as the county’s leader since 2001. Local political scientists say they expect a packed Democratic primary, though the number of officially declared candidates currently sits at zero.

So far, only state Rep. Ina Minjarez has publicly announced interest in the seat; she tweeted that she was exploring a run after Wolff announced his decision not to run again.

“I’ve received countless calls from community members for me to consider running for Bexar County Judge; with today’s news I’ve decided to form an exploratory committee,” she wrote on Oct. 6.

Rep. Minjarez was the only legislator mentioned in that story, but County Judge is a pretty good gig, so others may check this out. Being a County Judge is also a decent stepping stone to higher office, if that’s on one’s path. I will keep an eye on that.

With the mapmaking done, I expect we’ll start to hear about more people getting in, getting out, and moving over. And the January finance reports are going to tell us a lot. Stay tuned.

The proposed State House map is out

The last of the bunch.

Texas House members on Thursday released the first proposal for a new map redrawing the chamber’s 150-member districts. The initial draft would both increase Republicans’ strength across the state and the number of districts in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters.

House Bill 1, authored by Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter, the GOP chair of the House Redistricting Committee, is just the first draft, and it will likely change as it makes its way through the legislative process before it’s signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Legislature is in the midst of its third special session. This one is dedicated to redrawing political maps based on the latest census data that showed people of color fueled 95% of Texas’ population growth over the past decade. The percent of Hispanics is now nearly equal to white people in Texas.

But, the new map creates fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Black and Hispanic Texans make up two racial groups that along with Asian Texans outpaced the growth of white residents in the state over the last decade.

Currently 83 of the chamber’s 150 districts are areas in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters; 33 are districts where Hispanic voters make up the majority, while Black residents are the majority of eligible voters in seven districts.

Under the new proposal, the map adds six more districts where white residents make up the majority of eligible voters while the number of Hispanic and Black districts would each drop by three.

The proposed map would also change the partisan breakdown among the 150 districts, tilting the scale toward Republicans.

Currently, there are 76 districts that went to former President Donald Trump during the 2020 general election while 74 went to President Joe Biden. Among those, 50 districts voted 60% or more for Trump, — indicating the district is safely Republican — while 40 districts had more than 60% support for Biden — indicating strong Democratic support. Under the proposed new map, 86 districts would have gone for Trump, while 64 would have went for Biden. The number of districts that voted 60% or more for Trump or Biden would be tied at 46.

All the data for this plan is here, and the current State House map is here. I wrote about the other maps here: SBOE, State Senate (updated), Congress. For a good initial look at the partisan breakdowns and who is getting paired with whom, see Patrick Svitek and Derek Ryan. Note that Ryan uses a different formula to calculate the partisan strength of a district; by hit metric, Dems would be favored in 65, not 64 of them.

Couple of thoughts and observations:

– Harris County remains with 24 districts, not 25 as it had in 2001-2011. El Paso goes from having five full districts to four full districts plus a piece of HD74. Fort Bend gains a district, Travis gains a piece of the very Republican HD19; that district number used to be in east Texas, held by Rep. James White who is going for a promotion, and is now split into multiple other districts. Denton goes from four full districts to four plus a partial, while Collin goes from four plus a partial to five plus a partial; HD57 moves from east Texas to Denton, HD60 moves from west-ish Texas to Collin. HD76 moves from El Paso to Fort Bend.

– Rep. Erin Zwiener, whose HD45 had been Hays plus Blanco counties, is now shown in the very Republican HD73, which is Comal plus a piece of Hays; the new HD45, shown as having no incumbent at this time, is the rest of Hays. It’s also pretty Democratic, and I’d guess Rep. Zwiener will be househunting soon, if there are no changes to this piece of the map.

– Rep. Ryan Guillen’s HD31 was already the most Trumpy Dem-held district, and it’s the most Republican district held by a Dem, followed by Rep. James Talarico’s HD52. There’s one Republican-held district that now shows as clearly blue, and that’s Rep. Jeff Cason’s HD92 in Tarrant County. Not sure what he did to anger the redistricting gods.

– On a personal note, the Heights has been reunited in one district, HD145, after a decade of being split between HDs 145 and 148. I need to check this for the Senate map as well, to see if the SD06/SD15 dichotomy is still there.

– I’m sure there will be changes to this map, and as the story notes there are some unhappy Republicans; it’s nearly impossible to satisfy everyone, and the needs of the many etc etc etc. For what it’s worth, using Derek Ryan’s metrics, there are 18 districts where the Republican vote is between 40 and 50 percent, and 31 districts with the Republican vote between 50 and 60 percent. Nearly all of the latter are in the places that have been trending Democratic – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Collin, Denton, etc. A few of the former include South Texas districts that went the other way in 2020, but most of the rest are like the first group. I’ve said many times that the Republicans had to decide what their risk appetite was, and they have. If the current trends don’t at least slow down for them, this could really blow up on them.

I’m sure they’re aware of that, and they have a plan, or at least a hope, to hold on to enough of what they have to stave off disaster. All of this is without addressing the obvious racial inequities in the map, of which I’m sure we’ll hear plenty as the lawsuits begin to get filed. It’s never boring at this time of the decade, that’s for sure.

First proposed Congressional map is out

It’s a thing.

Texas lawmakers on Monday released their first draft of a new congressional map for the next decade that includes two new districts in Austin and Houston — metropolitan areas with diverse populations tht fueled much of the state’s population growth over the past 10 years.

Republicans constructed this map with incumbent protection in mind — a strategy that focused on bolstering Republican seats that Democrats targeted over the last two election cycles rather than aggressively adding new seats that could flip from blue to red. However, the map does in fact strengthen Republican positioning overall, going from 22 to 25 districts that voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The number of districts that voted for Joe Biden would shrink by one, from 14 to 13.

Texas members of the House GOP delegation were closely involved in the drawing process and approved the map last week, according to two sources close to the Texas delegation.

While many incumbents appear safe in these maps, others were drawn into districts that overlap with one another — for example the proposed map pits Houston Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw against Democrat Rep. Sylvia Garcia. It also pits two Houston Democrats — Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — against each other.

The maps were proposed by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who leads the chamber’s redistricting committee.

[…]

Huffman’s first 38-district proposal would widen the gap between the parties, creating 25 districts that voted for Trump in 2020 and 13 that voted for Biden.

The racial makeup of the congressional maps is also expected to change as Texas added two new congressional seats based on last decade’s population growth, which was mostly driven by people of color. Based on eligible voters, the current map includes 22 districts with white majorities, eight with Hispanic majorities, one with a Black majority and five that have no majority. The newly proposed map includes 23 districts with white majorities, seven with Hispanic majorities, none with a Black majority and eight that have no majority.

Available data can be found here. Patrick Svitek has some numbers, which I’ll summarize briefly:

– Of the 14 districts carried by Biden in 2020, 12 were carried by him under this map. The exceptions are Republican-held CD24, which goes from Biden +5 to Trump +12, and Democratic-held CD15, which goes from Biden +2 to Trump +3. That may make CD15 the new CD23, which went from Trump +1 to Trump +7.

– Of the two new districts, CD37 in Travis County is deep, dark blue (Biden +53), while CD38 in Harris County is Trump +18. Let’s just say I don’t think it will remain that red over time.

– Regardless of what the story says, it seems clear to me that Reps. Crenshaw, Green, Jackson Lee, and Garcia would run in and win the same-numbered districts as they have now.

– Reps. Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher get much bluer districts. Maybe that makes them vulnerable to primary challenges, I don’t know. Rep. Henry Cuellar in CD28 gets a district that is less favorable for his 2020 primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros.

– Overall I think I agree with Michael Li:

This map uses the same strategy as the Senate and SBOE maps in that it shores up a Harris County incumbent (in this case Crenshaw) by extending his district into Montgomery County, and shores up some other incumbents (see in particular Reps. Williams in CD25 and Carter in CD31) by making their districts more rural. As the meme says, it’s a bold strategy, we’ll see how it works for them.

The Chron focuses on the Harris County piece of this, with the following observation:

A spokesman for Wesley Hunt, a Republican who ran against Fletcher in 2020, said the former Army helicopter pilot would run for the new District 38 seat if lawmakers were to adopt the initial map proposal.

Hunt had previously announced he was running in 2022 but had yet to settle on a district while awaiting the proposed map.

That sound you hear is me rolling my eyes, and yes I am rolling them hard enough for it to be audible. The Texas Signal has more.

Planned Parenthood gets injunction against Texas Right to Life

It’s a start.

Right there with them

A district court in Travis County granted a temporary injunction on Monday, which will stop an anti-abortion group from being able to sue Planned Parenthood centers under SB 8, the so-called “heartbeat bill.”

Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas filed a request for a temporary injunction on Sept. 2 against Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion nonprofit and its associates. Planned Parenthood wanted to stop the group from suing abortion providers and health care workers at its centers in Texas.

The court ruled Monday that Texas Right to Life has “not shown that they will suffer any harm if a temporary injunction is granted” and that Planned Parenthood has “shown that they have a probable right to relief on their claims that SB 8 violates the Texas Constitution.” Planned Parenthood also has “no other adequate remedy at law,” the court said.

The court said the injunction will remain in effect until a final ruling; a trial on the merits of the case was set by the court for April 2022.

See here for the background. CNN has some more details.

This order applies only to Texas Right to Life and is part of a larger — and piecemeal — approach by abortion rights advocates to try to blunt the effect of the law. Other short-term temporary restraining orders are in place against other anti-abortion advocates, and more permanent injunctions are being sought in those cases.

[…]

In a court hearing Monday, Julie Murray, the attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the judge that the organization is currently “complying with SB8 precisely because of the overwhelming threats of litigation” and that a temporary injunction “will not restore abortion services … but it will prevent and reduce the litigation exposure and constitutional harms that [Planned Parenthood] will experience.”

The parties spent nearly two hours coming to an agreement about the terms of the injunction.

I would like to know more about the “other short-term temporary restraining orders in place against other anti-abortion advocates”. I was going to suggest a massive wave of litigation by pretty much every provider, doctor, affiliate, advocate, and anyone else who felt threatened by SB8, but maybe that is already happening. Obviously, we want to get a sweeping federal injunction against this travesty, which would cover all of the contingencies, but who knows how long that could take, and it would be at the mercy of the Fifth Circuit, so fire away on all cylinders in the meantime. If these guys want to live by the lawsuit, let’s see how they like being on the other end of it. Axios has more.

Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

The top elections official in Harris County and a host of organizations that serve Texans of color and Texans with disabilities have fired the opening salvos in what’s expected to be an extensive legal battle over Texas’ new voting rules.

In separate federal lawsuits filed in Austin and San Antonio, the coalition of groups and Harris County sued the state over Senate Bill 1 before it was even signed into law, arguing it creates new hurdles and restrictions that will suppress voters and unconstitutionally discourage public officials and organizations from helping Texans exercise their right to vote.

The lawsuits claim the legislation violates a broad range of federal laws — the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — and the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

“Egregiously, SB 1 takes particular aim at voters with disabilities, voters with limited English proficiency — who, in Texas, are also overwhelmingly voters of color — and the organizations that represent, assist, and support these voters,” the plaintiffs in the Austin lawsuit wrote in their complaint.

The plaintiffs in the San Antonio lawsuit,, which includes Harris County, also raise claims that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in pushing the legislation.

[…]

The plaintiffs attack head on the lack of evidence that fraud is a widespread problem in Texas elections.

In the San Antonio lawsuit, they argue SB 1’s “additional burdens and restrictions” cannot be justified by invoking “unspecified and unproven voter fraud” when there is no proof that it occurs “beyond the very few examples already identified through Texas’s pre-existing processes and procedures.”

“Rather … SB1 is a reaction to Texas’s changing electorate, which is now more racially diverse and younger than ever before,” they wrote in their complaint.

The claims raised collectively in both lawsuits are as expansive as the legislation is far-ranging.

They include claims on SB 1’s new restrictions on voter assistance, including the help voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency are entitled to receive. The plaintiffs point to the reworked oath that a person assisting a voter must recite, now under penalty of perjury, that no longer explicitly includes answering the voter’s questions. Instead, they must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

As part of its claims of intentional discrimination, the lawsuit that includes Harris County as a plaintiff also calls out SB 1’s prohibition on the drive-thru and 24-hour voting initiatives used by the diverse, Democratic county in the 2020 election — both of which county officials said were disproportionately used by voters of color.

SB1 also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. Several counties proactively sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, but Harris County attempted to send them to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible.

In outlawing those voting initiatives, Republican lawmakers made it clear they were targeting the state’s most populous county, even though other counties employed similar voting methods.

“My first and only priority is to educate and help voters to lawfully cast their ballots,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said in a statement. “Voting by mail is not simply another method to vote — for many senior voters and voters with disabilities, it’s their only option to vote. SB1 makes it a crime for me to encourage those who are eligible to vote by mail to do so, effectively making it impossible to fulfill my sworn duty as Elections Administrator.”

Both lawsuits also argue the constitutionality of a section of SB 1 that creates new a “vote harvesting” criminal offense, which it defines as in-person interactions with voters “in the physical presence of an official ballot or a ballot voted by mail, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.” The lawsuits argue the language in that section — and the criminal penalties attached to it — are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague and could serve to quash legitimate voter turnout initiatives.

The lawsuits also challenge provisions of SB1 that bolster protections for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, and new ID requirements for voting by mail.

You can see copies of the lawsuits here for Austin and here for San Antonio. I note that Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, is a defendant in her official capacity in the Austin lawsuit and a plaintiff in the San Antonio lawsuit. I assume there’s a technical reason why a county elections administrator is named as a defendant in these actions, but I have no idea what algorithm is used to decide which county and administrator. (The Austin lawsuit also includes Dana DeBeauvoir from the Travis County elections office as a defendant, while the San Antonio lawsuit picks the Medina County admin. Go figure.)

I’m not going to speculate on the merits or chances of these lawsuits, which I assume will eventually get combined into a single action. I expect that they have a strong case, and we know from past performance that the Republicans in the Lege tend to be shoddy and indifferent in their work when they pass bills like these, but none of that really matters. What matters is what if anything the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS deign to find objectionable. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to get my hopes up. I expect the Justice Department to get involved on the side of the plaintiffs, and there’s always the specter of passing the John Lewis Act and making this way easier on everyone. In the meantime, settle in for the long haul, because we know this will take years to come to a resolution. Look to see what happens when (I feel confident saying “when” and not “if”) a temporary restraining order is granted.

The legal situation with the heartbeat bill

I’m writing this at eight PM, and will very likely be asleep before SCOTUS takes any action, if they do take action. So let’s start with what we have as of now:

That was in reply to this:

See here for the previous entry. If I see that SCOTUS has taken action when I get up in the morning, I’ll update this post. If not, you can assume that there’s basically no such thing as abortion in Texas until further notice. And that will include medical abortion.

Two days before one of the strictest abortion laws in the country is set to go into effect in Texas, the state Legislature tentatively approved another bill Monday evening that would restrict the procedure during the first term of pregnancy.

Senate Bill 4 remains identical to the version of the bill passed by the Texas Senate. Texas Democrats were unable to attach amendments to the bill, despite more than a dozen attempts, which means the bill will head straight to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk if it is finally approved with no changes.

The legislation would limit patients’ access to abortion-inducing pills, preventing physicians or providers from giving abortion-inducing medication to patients who are more than seven weeks pregnant. Current law allows practitioners to give these pills to patients who are up to 10 weeks pregnant.

Notably, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set its guidelines in 2016 advising that abortion-inducing pills are safe to use up to 70 days, or 10 weeks, after initial conception.

These pills have increasingly become the most common method for women to terminate a pregnancy if they are aware of their pregnancy early enough. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research institute that supports abortion rights, 60% of women elect to take a pill over having surgery.

It’s grim. This bill might have a chance of being knocked down by litigation, but who can even say at this point.

It should be noted that there is some state litigation happening, but that will not have the effect of blocking SB8.

Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum issued a temporary restraining order barring the anti-abortion organization Texas Right To Life; John Seago, its legislative director, and others from “instituting any private enforcement lawsuits” under SB 8 against the plaintiff, a Dallas attorney, according to the order.

But the full scope of the order was narrow, and does not apply to a majority of providers or Texans.

“While the temporary restraining order issued by the Texas state court in Austin provides some relief to the two individuals and one nonprofit organization against lawsuits from the Texas Right to Life, it does not provide the full relief needed to ensure all Texans can access their constitutional right to an abortion,” said Julie Murray, staff attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Here’s a bit more on that litigation from KXAN:

District Judge Amy Clark Meachum considered three cases on Tuesday morning: one, brought by an attorney and sexual assault victim’s advocate named Michelle Tuegel; another brought by Bridge Collective, a resource group for people seeking an abortion; and another brought by Allie Van Stean, a woman who regularly donates to women’s health clinics.

On Tuesday morning, the judge granted temporary restraining orders (TROs) in all three instances, against the group Texas Right to Life. According to attorneys for these three plaintiffs, the TRO’s prevent Texas Right to Life from filing lawsuits under the new fetal heartbeat law, until the court can conduct a full-scale temporary injunction hearing later in September.

Their attorneys say the ruling is significant for their clients because they had to prove “probable right to relief” to get the TRO — meaning they were able to show the judge evidence supporting their challenge to the law’s constitutionality.

KXAN spoke to Van Stean earlier this month, who explained, “Simply donating to places like Planned Parenthood count as aiding and abetting an abortion… If I’m donating to Planned Parenthood, I’m not necessarily giving with the intent to assist women in getting an abortion. Planned Parenthood and other places provide necessary and needed services like birth control at a lower cost, affordable option for women who can’t afford it.”

A spokesperson for Texas Right to Life told KXAN on Tuesday, the judge’s ruling was “narrow” and does not block the Texas Heartbeat Act from being broadly enforced at midnight.

Rewire wrote a story about Michelle Tuegel, who had filed a lawsuit in Dallas. In that one she sued a whole lot of people, mostly legislators. I don’t know what happened to that suit or if it is related in some way to this one. You should read that story, which links to this one about how Tuegel won a big judgment against US Gymnastics over the Larry Nassar case. If nothing else, I’m glad to have someone like that fighting the good fight.

And that’s all I know right now. If there’s any news in the morning, I’ll include it here. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: No word from SCOTUS, so SB8 officially became law at midnight last night. They can – and some people think they will – still act today. But SB8 is in effect until and unless they do.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

This was for the Harris County litigation, which included Austin and several South Texas school districts. As such, Harris County’s mask mandate is still in effect. This is a procedural ruling, just telling Ken Paxton he needs to follow the law and go through the appellate courts first, and as such it buys some time. Given how accommodating SCOTx has generally been, it’s nice that they’re not fast-tracking any of this. I doubt it makes much difference in the end, but it matters now.

By the way, if you heard that Greg Abbott was dropping enforcement of school mask mandate bans, that simply isn’t so. Abbott and Paxton can go via the appellate courts as before and as they should have here, and the case will eventually make its way back to SCOTx, where they will likely give the state what it wants. Everything is temporary and in a state of flux right now.

Speaking of the appellate courts:

After Gov. Greg Abbott appealed a temporary order that allowed for mask mandates in schools and city- and county-owned buildings, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the order still stands.

On Monday, Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction, allowing the mask mandates in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools to continue until a trial is held. The city and county sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to issue mask mandates.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district court’s ruling on behalf of Abbott, arguing that his appeal automatically blocked the San Antonio and Bexar County mask mandate. While city attorneys disagreed, they still asked the 4th Court of Appeals on Tuesday to officially uphold the temporary injunction.

In an order issued Thursday, the 4th Court of Appeals reasoned that allowing local governments to have policies to protect public health maintained the status quo, while Abbott actually changed it with his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from mandating masks.

The court also cited testimony given during the Monday hearing from Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh. Both said that requiring masks will help slow the spread of the delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains. They also pointed to the vulnerability of schoolchildren under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“Based on the temporary injunction order and the evidence attached to the emergency motion, the City and County have demonstrated that reinstating the trial court’s temporary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm and preserve their rights during the pendency of this accelerated appeal,” the appellate judges wrote. “The circumstances of this case are unique and, quite frankly, unprecedented.”

See here for the background. This ruling means that the Bexar County mandate can remain in place until the hearing for the temporary injunction, which will be December 13. Except, of course, that Abbott and Paxton can appeal this ruling to SCOTx, and having gone through the proper channels this time, the same reason to reject the other TRO will not be in effect. Expect this to get a ruling from SCOTx in the next couple of days.

In the meantime:

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county’s application for a temporary injunction, siding with local officials in their fight against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Judge J. Christian Becerra of the 434th District Court approved the county’s application for the temporary injunction following a day’s worth of testimony in his courtroom.

The Fort Bend County public health director and a local hospital administrator testified to the healthcare emergency currently facing the Southeast Texas region. Both said they believe mask mandates would help mitigate the spread.

Fort Bend ISD had not gone along with implementing a mask mandate initially. This may change that, we’ll see. This was a late-breaking story, there will be more details to come.

And finally, just to show that you can’t keep Ken Paxton down:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday after its superintendent said he’ll require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before an October 15 deadline.

The suit, filed in Bexar County District Court and shared by Courthouse News Service, argues that a July 29 order by Gov. Greg Abbott bars any public entity in the state from mandating that people take the vaccine. That order supersedes SAISD’s ability to require inoculations of its staff, the state claims.

“Defendants challenge the policy choices made by the state’s commander in chief during times of disaster,” according to the petition.

SAISD is believed to be the first large Texas school district to make vaccines mandatory. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s demand comes during a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases as children too young to be vaccinated head back for a new school year.

“For us, it is about safety and stability in our classrooms,” Martinez told the Express-News this week. “We cannot afford to have threats to those two goals.”

Martinez also told the daily that the legal implications of his order weren’t a consideration.

A mask mandate is one thing, a vaccine mandate is another, at least in terms of waving a red flag in front of Abbott and Paxton. I expect Paxton to prevail, though we’ll see if he gets his restraining order from the district court judge or if he has to go up the ladder.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about that SCOTx refusal to put a stay on the Travis County judge’s rulings, and here’s the Chron story. There’s so much damn news these days I just go with what’s in front of me when I’m ready to start writing, and circle back as needed.