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Williamson County

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

Javier Ambler

Remember his name.

Javier Ambler

Javier Ambler was driving home from playing poker on March 28, 2019, when he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic.

A Williamson County sheriff’s deputy initiated a stop and began chasing him for the minor traffic violation. After Ambler apparently refused to pull over, a pursuit that lasted 22 minutes and ended when Ambler’s Honda Pilot crashed north of Downtown Austin.

Minutes later, Ambler, a 40-year-old father of two, was dying on a neighborhood street.

Records obtained by the KVUE Defenders and the Austin American-Statesman reveal that deputies used Taser stun guns on him at least three times, even as he told them multiple times that he had a heart condition and could not breathe.

The circumstances of Ambler’s March 28, 2019, death have never been revealed. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office tried to shield information from release since receiving its first request in February.

Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, which officials said include “justifiable homicide.” Medical examiners listed his cause of death as congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint,” according to an in-custody report filed with the Texas Attorney General’s office. The report included no other details about Ambler’s autopsy, which hasn’t been released, but noted that he did not appear to be intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.

[…]

Plohetski and the KVUE Defenders learned about Ambler’s death in February from frustrated investigators who felt stymied in their quest to understand what happened.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office sought to keep confidential internal affairs records in the case after a request for information in late February.

On May 18, however, the Texas Attorney General ruled that the agency had no legal grounds to withhold information and ordered that at least some materials be released. Ten days later, the sheriff’s office provided a three-page internal affairs investigative report that found no wrongdoing by deputies.

Plohetski and the KVUE Defenders learned about Ambler’s death in February from frustrated investigators who felt stymied in their quest to understand what happened.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office sought to keep confidential internal affairs records in the case after a request for information in late February.

On May 18, however, the Texas Attorney General ruled that the agency had no legal grounds to withhold information and ordered that at least some materials be released. Ten days later, the sheriff’s office provided a three-page internal affairs investigative report that found no wrongdoing by deputies.

The deputy chased him for 22 minutes because Javier Ambler had his high beams on. When was the last time you were pulled over for that offense? What possible public safety goal would have been achieved by pursuing and then forcibly subduing Javier Ambler?

More from the Statesman:

The deputies’ decisions to chase and repeatedly use their Tasers on a man who simply failed to dim his lights prompts questions about the agency’s practice of pursuing drivers for minor crimes.

“It is of very serious concern to any of us who are in law enforcement that the decision to engage in that chase was driven by more of a need to provide entertainment than to keep Williamson County citizens safe,” said Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.

Some 15 months after Ambler’s death, Moore’s civil rights division is still investigating the incident. After questioning from an American-Statesman reporter, she said her office plans to present the case to a grand jury.

[…]

As Deputy J.J. Johnson, who is regularly featured on “Live PD,” patrolled the quiet suburban roads just north of Austin last March, a film crew rode along with him.

When Ambler passed with his brights on at 1:23 a.m., the deputy turned his car around and flipped on the flashing lights.

Ambler didn’t stop. Johnson gave chase.

For the next 22 minutes, the two vehicles sped across highways and onto neighborhood streets. As he drove, Johnson narrated for the TV crew, telling them what he thought was going on in Ambler’s mind.

As they crossed into Travis County, Austin officers were instructed not to get involved in the pursuit because they are allowed only to chase dangerous criminals.

There’s a long, detailed account of what happened after that. Ambler was tasered four times, and told the deputies that he had congestive heart failure, was unable to breathe, and was trying but unable to comply with the orders they shouted at him, while sitting on top of him. They handcuffed him when he fell unconscious, and only realized a few minutes later that Ambler was not breathing.

You may be wondering, why was there a TV crew with Deputy Johnson?

Investigators say they are disturbed about what happened to Ambler and how the Williamson sheriff’s officials have responded to his death.

They are troubled that deputies went to such extraordinary lengths to capture Ambler for a minor offense. They also have grave concerns about the consequences of having “Live PD” camera crews at the scene.

“Live PD” did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. The footage shot that night has not aired.

In the past three years, more than half of the nearly 100 pursuits initiated by Williamson County deputies were for traffic violations, according to department records.

Chody said Monday that he does not believe the department’s current, more restrictive, pursuit policy was in place during the chase that led to Ambler’s death.

[…]

The case also adds fuel to a yearlong fight between Chody and Williamson County commissioners about his department’s participation in “Live PD.” Chody has said the show offers viewers a first-hand experience of policing, has raised the profile of his agency and is a valuable recruiting tool.

But Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick has said he’s concerned that “Live PD” refuses to provide prosecutors with video footage it collects while on patrol with deputies.

“It is getting very difficult for my prosecutors to uphold their statutory and Constitutional obligations to disclose evidence when prosecuting sheriff’s department cases,” Dick said.

Days after Dick raised those concerns in 2019, Williamson County commissioners ended a contract with the show.

In March of this year, however, filming resumed when Chody signed his own agreement with producers, prompting commissioners to issue a “cease and desist” order to the sheriff’s office.

Chody refused to comply, and in May, the county sued him.

“Sheriff Chody can perform the core duties of sheriff without the live TV show,” the lawsuit said. “But he doesn’t want to. Instead, Sheriff Chody seeks social media and TV exposure like a moth to a light bulb — and he’s flown out of his job description to get back on TV.”

I don’t even know what to say about that. But if you’re thinking that at least there’s video of the whole thing, well

Video filmed by a “Live PD” crew of an in-custody death of a black man last year has been destroyed and can no longer be turned over to Austin investigators, representatives of the reality TV show said Tuesday.

The disclosure by A&E Networks came a day after the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported details of the March 2019 death of Javier Ambler while being arrested by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies in connection with a traffic violation. The Austin American-Statesman is part of the USA TODAY Network.

A&E confirmed Tuesday that “video of the tragic death of Javier Ambler was captured by body cams worn on the officers involved as well by the producers of Live PD who were riding with certain officers involved.”

It said that the incident did not occur while the show was airing live and that the video was not broadcast later.

A&E’s statement said that Austin investigators had not asked for the video or to interview show producers. “As is the case with all footage taken by Live PD producers, we no longer retained the unaired footage after learning that the investigation had concluded,” the network said in a statement.

[…]

Three of four Williamson County commissioners Tuesday called for Sheriff Robert Chody to resign after learning of Ambler’s death and charges that Chody’s department had failed to provide evidence to Travis County investigators.

“The citizens have lost faith in him,” Williamson County Commissioner Russ Boles said.

The TDP and State Rep. James Talarico have also called for Sheriff Chody’s resignation; I’m sure others will follow. The point here is the same point that so many other people have been making, some for a very long time and others in recent weeks, which is that the death of black Americans at the hands of police officers happens all the damn time, in every state, and that fundamental, root-and-branch change is needed to stop it. It’s not a matter of “bad apples”, it’s the system. CBS News and the Texas Signal have more.

The May elections will not happen

Not in May, anyway.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

Who will carry the flag in CD31?

This primary interests me mostly to see if we can get a truly viable challenger in this district or not. No one person has emerged yet, that’s for sure.

Democrats who want to be Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter’s challenger in November think focusing on health care will turn the 31st District north of Austin blue. But Republicans, who have long held the seat, say their opponents won’t have much luck without a high-profile candidate like 2018’s MJ Hegar, who is now focusing on a U.S. Senate run.

Democratic candidates Eric Hanke, Donna Imam, Dan Janjigian, Christine Mann and Tammy Young are vying for their party’s nomination in the district includes suburban Williamson County and the more rural Bell County. They say rising health care costs and support for military veterans are voters’ top priorities — and most want to expand access to affordable health care to address those concerns.

“I would put health care at the top of the list because we have a lot of people that don’t have access to health care because it’s not affordable,” said Hanke, a 41-year-old singer-songwriter who recorded a new song, “Turn Texas Blue,” for a campaign ad.

But whoever snags the party’s nomination will need to unseat Carter, who was first elected in 2002 and said the general election in November will be about economic security and safety.

[…]

In 2018, Hegar, a political newcomer, became a strong challenger to Carter after a viral ad documenting her military service garnered millions of views. She came within 3 percentage points of unseating Carter, making the district a target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle.

“MJ really put this race on the map and showed us that this was possible,” said Young, a 51-year-old Round Rock City Council member. “For too long, we’ve allowed Washington insiders to stay in office as long as they want, not believing things could change. MJ showed us what is possible with the right candidate.”

[…]

So far, there is no clear Democratic front-runner, according to State Rep. James Talarico. He campaigned alongside Hegar for his seat in the Texas House and said the key to flipping the congressional district is to have an inclusive platform and work across the aisle.

“It’s going to take a candidate who has a message that appeals to a broad base of community members. One that fires up our Democratic base while still being inclusive of independents and even some disillusioned Republicans,” said Talarico.

Mann, who entered the primary before the other four candidates, has been the top fundraiser in contributions, collecting $171,000 through Dec. 31, according to Federal Election Commission records. Imam has raised $208,000, though it includes a $100,000 loan to herself.

Steve Armbruster, chair of the Williamson County Republican Party, sees Hegar’s 2018 run as lightning in a bottle and is doubtful Democrats will replicate her performance.

“I don’t think that the Democrats have anybody on their side of the aisle that they could choose that would have the ability to draw voters out like they had two years ago,” Armbruster said.

Hegar said she believes this year’s Democratic lineup is competitive enough to finish what she started in 2018.

“We have a strong batch of candidates, and I am confident that by continuing to mobilize volunteers and voters the eventual nominee will close the 2.9 [percentage point] gap we had left and send John Carter to retirement in 2020,” Hegar said in an email.

The story of CD31 is like the story of several other Congressional districts, in that it took a small step in a blue direction from 2012 to 2016, then went really far in that direction in 2018. It’s no surprise at all that CD31 is on the DCCC target list, but let’s do keep in mind how far we have come.


2012

Carter  61.3%  Wyman   35.0%
Romney  59.4%  Obama   38.1%
Keller  57.8%  Hampton 36.8%

2016

Carter  58.4%  Clark   36.5%
Trump   52.6%  Clinton 40.1%
Keasler 56.8%  Burns   37.3%

2018

Carter  50.6%  Hegar   47.7%
Cruz    50.5%  Beto    48.4%
Keller  52.7%  Jackson 44.2%

That’s incumbent John Carter versus his opponent that year, then the top of the ticket, and then a Court of Criminal Appeals race for further context. Carter was used to doing better than other Republicans in CD31, but that did not happen with MJ Hegar as his opponent. The blue shift has occurred up and down the ballot, but the top has gone farther in our direction, as you can see. That means there’s still work to be done, and that the candidate quality will matter. It also means that if the environment isn’t quite as good as we hope it will be, what looks competitive now will be less so later. On the other hand, if the Presidential race remains as close as recent polling has indicated it is, then we should expect to see conditions much like 2018, with the extra benefit of further demographic change and Presidential year turnout.

I don’t know any of these candidates well enough to have a preference. I’m sure they’d all be fine. I also don’t expect anyone to raise money like Hegar did, but we do need someone to start raking it in, so that they can have the resources they will need in November. I’m hoping the primary will give us some clarity, at the very least.

Our first look at how Engage Texas will operate

Interesting move.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As people filed in and out of the massive driver license office in Southwest Houston on Tuesday morning, two workers at a tent affiliated with a conservative advocacy group asked if the passersby would sign a petition or register to vote.

A follow-up question as two women filled out the forms: Are you conservative or liberal?

“Conservative means you believe in less government and less taxes,” one of the workers – wearing a lime green T-shirt with the group’s name, Engage Texas — asked them. “Liberal means you believe in more government and more taxes.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, who leads the Democratic Caucus in the Texas House, said he witnessed something similar Monday outside Department of Public Safety driver license offices in Fort Worth and in Hurst, a suburb of Dallas, where people who signed a petition to ‘ban late-term abortion’ were asked to register to vote.

“The taxpayers of Texas have a right to expect that their hard-earned dollars are not subsidizing political activity, as is the case here,” Turner wrote Tuesday in a letter to DPS. “And Texans who are trying to renew their driver licenses, already forced to wait hours – sometimes outside in the heat – are enduring enough already without having to deal with political operatives while stuck in line.”

But DPS said in a statement that public spaces outside driver license offices are available for “political speech,” and it appears that Engage Texas is just beginning to ramp up its efforts to register voters ahead of the 2020 elections in which the GOP faces more competitive races than it has in over a decade.

[…]

Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said the difference between Engage Texas’ voter drive and those organized by Democratic and other groups is the use of a petition or other questions to gauge a person’s political interests.

“If you’re going to be there and register voters, that’s fine,” Rahman said. “But if you’re only registering conservative voters and you’re making them do a political test … that’s where the problem is.”

Chris Davis, elections administrator in Williamson County — where Turner said Engage Texas representatives told him the group was also posted — said he wasn’t aware of any part of the law that explicitly prohibits deputy voter registrars from screening for political affiliation before registering a voter.

But Davis said he believes they have an obligation to register anyone who would like to be registered.

“Their primary charge, as I see it, is to register folks, regardless of stripe, race, creed,” Davis said. “And I wouldn’t look kindly on anyone that is trying to determine a potential voter’s leanings or proclivities as it relates to their politics or stances or beliefs before they issue out an application.”

See here and here for the background. This appears to be legal, though apparently something no one had known would be allowed by DPS before now. Let’s be honest, if any Democratic-aligned group had tried something like this – not just operating on state property, but also overtly excluding people they don’t want to register – as recently as last year, Republicans everywhere would have had a capital-F freakout. I’m trying to come up with non-hyperbolic examples of reactions they would have had, and I can’t. Everything up to and including calling out the National Guard to arrest the registrars and defend DPS parking lots from them would have been possible. Now? Desperate times, I guess. But if that’s what they want

Legislation can’t be filed to stop what Engage Texas is doing until the Texas House and Senate’s 2021 session. In the meantime, Turner says, he expects a bevy of groups to take advantage of DPS’ hospitality.

“If this is DPS’ policy, and they say it is, I think it’s going to be a free-for-all out there now that this is well-known,” Turner says.

I approve that message. The DMN and the Texas Signal have more.

Raising money to register Republicans

Just keeping an eye on things.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: 2018 SBOE

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


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

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

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

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

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

SOS screws up again

Are you kidding me?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another reason David Whitley has to go

County elections officials feel like they can’t trust him or his office right now. That’s a big deal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned on Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

I believe the term of art for this is that the SOS office is “in disarray”. Let us continue:

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials would have access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office would send soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn’t look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

And from there it got worse. The data was quickly shown to be disastrously inaccurate, with the SOS office at first quietly admitting as much to county officials. The lawsuits started coming, with county officials themselves being named in some of them for taking action upon receipt of the SOS advisory. And then the crown jewel, in which Keith Ingram threw county officials under the bus in a mealy-mouthed defense of his office’s incompetence. I’m sure this marriage of state and local elections officials can still be saved, but it’s time to get some counseling.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Betsy Schonhoff to tell her story in court, and for the reality to sink in on the Republican side that David Whitley’s days in office are numbered. And all of this began because of a zealous and fanatical pursuit of “illegal voters”, a problem that is very small and usually the result of misunderstanding than any bad intent, where all of the proposed “solutions” cause far more damage than they can ever hope to mitigate. All happening against the backdrop of the biggest election scandal I can recall, in which a Republican candidate for Congress and a shady campaign consultant used absentee ballots to actually steal an election, just last year, which now has to be done over. Just curious here, I don’t follow Ken Paxton on Twitter, but has he had anything to say about that? There are indeed lessons to be learned about election fraud. Our state leadership refuses to try.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Meet KP George

He’s the new Fort Bend County Judge.

KP George

In December, that strange suspended-in-motion month between his election and taking office, K.P. George was checking out the quaint old domed Fort Bend County Courthouse, soon to be his domain. In November, to the surprise of almost everyone outside his campaign, George had been elected Fort Bend’s county judge — which is to say, the top boss of one of the United States’ fastest-growing counties, with 765,000 residents, nearly 3,000 employees, and an annual budget over $370 million.

When George takes office on Jan. 1, he’ll become arguably the most powerful Indian-American in U.S. government — as well as a potent symbol of the new Fort Bend, and of Asian-Americans’ growing power in Texas and American politics.

[…]

And still, to most political insiders, George’s election came as a surprise. “He was not someone on our radar,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian-American Impact Fund. “It wasn’t a race we engaged in. In hindsight, that’s a lesson for us: In some of these places with fast-shifting demographics, like the Texas suburbs, there are huge opportunities for us.”

“For Republicans in Fort Bend County, Donald Trump is a real liability,” [Rice poli-sci professor Mark] Jones said. “Socially and fiscally conservative Asian-Americans used to vote for more Republicans. But Trump’s rhetoric and policies are seen as anti-immigrant — anti-Latino, but also anti-Asian.”

“Many Trump administration policies, such as targeting Muslims as terrorists, don’t play well with Asian-Americans…. Indian-Americans may not love Pakistanis, but the same racial discrimination that targets Pakistanis targets them.

“In Fort Bend, there was a double whammy for Republicans. A much larger proportion of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats, and Asian-Americans also turned out at a much higher rate than they had previously.”

Observers have long predicted that Texas’ changing demographics will eventually turn the most Republican of states into one that’s more bipartisan or even reliably Democratic. That’s already true of Texas’ cities. Now the battles have shifted to the suburbs.

Notably, George is a Democrat. “It’s a historic election for Texas,” said Jones — Fort Bend is the first exurb to elect a Democrat to the top of its county government. “It could portend the future for diverse counties such as Denton and Collin.”

I’m honestly surprised that this race wasn’t on the radar of any national organizations like the Indian-American Impact Fund. George was not a novice politician – he’d been twice elected to the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees. Fort Bend had been trending Dem for some time, and fit in every way the profile of the suburban, diverse, won-by-Hillary-in-2016 Congressional districts that were so hotly contested. Outgoing Judge Bob Hebert had served for a long time, but didn’t have the bipartisan cred that Ed Emmitt had, which might have helped him ride out the wave. This race should have been seen as a prime opportunity, and if it wasn’t that was a failure of imagination.

And yes, I believe this is a leading indicator for other suburban counties. Williamson County didn’t elect anyone countywide despite being carried by Beto O’Rourke, MJ Hegar, and Justin Nelson, but it did elect two Democratic State Reps and two JPs, while a Dem County Commissioner candidate fell just short. Dems didn’t carry any race in Denton or Collin, but elected a State Rep in Denton while just missing on two in Collin, and a JP in Denton County. It was a big step forward. There are no guarantees for 2020, of course, but the obstacle of credibility – the belief that it’s really possible a Dem could win – has been cleared. That can only help.

The changing tides in Central Texas

From the Statesman:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

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

Democrats now hold 13 of 36 Texas congressional seats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention it’s been busy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The meta-campaign for Senate

Let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about the Senate campaign.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

It’s the most backhanded of compliments.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for U.S. Senate has caught so much fire throughout the state that the new favorite betting game in Texas politics is “How close can he get to Ted Cruz in November?”

The implication in the question’s phrasing is that O’Rourke’s loss remains a given.

Despite the high enthusiasm the El Paso congressman’s campaign has drawn among Democrats, Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide in over 20 years. An informal round of interviews with well over a dozen political players involved in Texas and national politics suggests that Cruz is expected to extend that streak with a re-election victory in the high single digits.

While such a margin would amount to significant progress for Democrats from past statewide performances, a loss is a loss, and Cruz’s win would likely ensure GOP control of the U.S. Senate for another two years.

Even so, O’Rourke’s 18-month statewide tour could still help significantly rebuild a flagging state party apparatus. The term being thrown around quietly among Democrats is “losing forward.”

In that sense, the stakes are much higher for both parties than a single race.

How this very strange match up of Cruz, a former GOP presidential runner-up, against O’Rourke, a rank-and-file congressman turned political sensation, shakes out could set the trajectory of the next decade in Texas politics.

[…]

More than one operative from both parties brushed off the O’Rourke excitement with a pervasive phrase — “This is still Texas” — a nod to the state’s recent history as the most populous conservative powerhouse in the union.

The enthusiasm for O’Rourke — his bonanza event attendance and record-breaking fundraising, in particular — is something the state has not seen in modern memory. But there remain open questions over whether the three-term congressman can take a punch when the widely expected fall advertising blitz against him begins, whether he can activate the Hispanic vote and whether he can effectively build his name identification in a such a sprawling and populated state.

“We’ve never been in a situation where November matters at a statewide level,” said Jason Stanford, a former Democratic consultant, about the uncertainty of the fall.

So what would a moral victory be, if O’Rourke is unable to close the deal outright? Operatives from both parties suggest a 5- to 6-point spread — or smaller — could send a shockwave through Texas politics.

Such a margin could compel national Democrats to start making serious investments in the state and force local Republicans to re-examine how their own party practices politics going forward.

But that kind of O’Rourke performance could also bear more immediate consequences, potentially scrambling the outcomes of races for other offices this fall.

Only a handful of statewide surveys on the race are floating around the Texas political ether. But one increasing point of alarm for Republicans is what campaign strategists are seeing when they test down-ballot races.

Often campaigns for the U.S. House or the Texas Legislature will include statewide matchups in polling they conduct within a district. Sources from both parties say some of those polls show Cruz underperforming in some state legislative and congressional races — particularly in urban areas.

In effect, O’Rourke could come up short but turn out enough voters in the right communities to push Democrats over the line in races for the Legislature and U.S. House.

I know I discussed this before back in 2014 when we were all high on Battleground Texas, but let’s do this again. What are the consolation prize goals for Texas Democrats in 2018?

– To discuss the consolation prizes, we have to first agree on what the main goals are. Clearly, electing Beto O’Rourke is one of the brass rings, but what about the other statewide campaigns? My guess is that based primarily on visibility and the implications for control of the Senate, the O’Rourke-Cruz race is in a class by itself, so everything after that falls in the “consolation prize” bucket. Thus, I’d posit that winning one or more downballot statewide race would be in the first level of lower-tier goals, with Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, and any Supreme Court/CCA bench being the ones that are most in focus.

– Very close behind would be the Congressional races, for which three (CDs 07, 23, and 32) are rated as tossups, a couple more (CDs 21 and 31) are on the radar, and more than we can count are on the fringes. You have to feel like CD23 is winnable in any decent year, so for this to count as a prize we’d need at least one more seat in addition to flip. Very good would be all three tossups, and great would be another seat in addition.

– In the Lege, picking up even one Senate seat would be nice, but picking up two or three means Dems have enough members to block things via the three-fifths (formerly two-thirds) rule. I don’t know how many House seats I’d consider prize-level-worthy, but knocking off a couple of the worst offenders that are in winnable seats, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115, Gary Elkins in HD135, and Tony Dale in HD136, would be sweet.

– Sweeping Harris County, breaking through in Fort Bend County, picking up any kind of victory in places like Collin, Denton, Williamson, Brazoria, you get the idea. And don’t forget the appellate courts, which will require doing well in non-urban counties.

It’s easy enough to say what counts as lower-level goals, it’s harder to put numbers on it. It’s not my place to say what we “should” win in order to feel good about it. Frankly, given recent off-year elections, it’s a bit presumptuous to say that any number of victories in places we haven’t won this decade might be somehow inadequate. I think everyone will have their own perception of how it went once the election is over, and unless there’s a clear rout one way or the other there will be some level of disagreement over how successful Democrats were.

State has not appealed the voting rights case on language interpreters

Interesting.

Texas has spent years defending its voting laws in court, regularly appealing rulings that found state lawmakers violated the rights of their voters. So when a federal appellate court in August ruled against the state’s restrictions on language interpreters at the ballot box, it was easy to assume an appeal would follow.

But more than three months later, Texas appears to be conceding the case.

“We have not heard anything from Texas,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It appears that they are not appealing.”

At issue in the case was an obscure provision of the Texas Election Code that required interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

In its August ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s finding that Texas ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act by restricting the interpretation assistance that English-limited voters may receive and that the law should be struck down.

The appellate court found that Texas’ “limitation” on a voter’s choice “impermissibly narrows” rights guaranteed by a lesser-known section of the Voting Rights Act under which a voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“The problem remains that the Texas provisions expressly limit the right to the act of casting a ballot,” the judges wrote in August. “It should go without saying that a state cannot restrict this federally guaranteed right by enacting a statute tracking its language, then defining terms more restrictively than as federally defined.”

The Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, for weeks has been unable to confirm whether its lawyers are appealing the ruling or letting stand the lower court ruling.

“At this time, we cannot confirm or deny any filings sent to the Supreme Court,” Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said last week. Instead, she pointed the Tribune to a link to the 5th Circuit’s August ruling on a free, online courts database.

But two weeks past a deadline to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the clerk’s office for the high court has not received a filing for the case. A clerk for the 5th Circuit confirmed the case is closed at the appellate court, and no recent filings appear on the case’s docket at the lower district court where the case originated.

See here for the last update. I don’t know if this means that no further appeals are possible or if it just means that it’s too late for the current SCOTUS term. I also have no idea why the AG’s office has not pursued this. Whatever the merits of an appeal by them may be, it’s not in Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott’s nature to let something go. Whatever the reason, I’m happy with the outcome.

Fifth Circuit rules against Texas’ voter interpreter law

Good.

Texas ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by restricting the interpretation assistance English-limited voters may receive at the ballot box, a federal appeals court found.

In an opinion issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an obscure provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help clashes with federal voting protections.

That Texas law, the court found, violates a less-known section of the Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

Texas had argued that its interpreter requirement was meant to be “supplemental” to the VRA, but the appellate court ruled that the state’s “limitation on voter choice” instead “impermissibly narrows” the voting rights guaranteed by federal law.

“The problem remains that the Texas provisions expressly limit the right to the act of casting a ballot,” the judges wrote. “It should go without saying that a state cannot restrict this federally guaranteed right by enacting a statute tracking its language, then defining terms more restrictively than as federally defined.”

[…]

The interpreter voting law has been on hold since last year when U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman scolded the state for “arbitrarily” restricting voters with limited English proficiency. On Thursday, the 5th Circuit judges agreed with that judge’s ruling, but they sided with the state in determining that Pitman’s injunction on the law was too broad. Pitman must now take the case back up and reconsider the language he used in blocking the interpreter law.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Basically, the district court judge’s opinion was upheld, with the injunction being vacated with a remand “for the entry of a new injunction, if appropriate, consistent with this opinion”. There were bills introduced in the Lege to address the issues in the lawsuit, but as far as I know they went nowhere. Maybe next time. Until then, we’ll see what the district court does, and if the state appeals. That’s quite the losing streak in voting rights-related cases we’re on here, isn’t it?

The rural/suburban tradeoff

Martin Longman returns to a point he has been making about the way the vote shifted in the 2016 election.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean. Hillary Clinton won a lot of votes in the suburbs from people who had voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. She lost even more votes from folks in small towns and rural areas who had voted for Barack Obama.

So, if I understand what Jeet Heer and David Atkins are saying, it’s basically that the Democrats can’t make much more progress in the suburbs than they’ve already made and that the easier task is to win back Democrats that they’ve recently lost. Either that, or they’re just wrong about how likely Romney Republicans are/were to defect.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which would be the easier task. But I do know that so far this trade has not favored the Democrats. The left’s votes are already too concentrated and I can make this point clear fairly easily.

When suburban Chester County was voting 50-50 in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it was possible for the Democrats to also win down ballot seats. And the Democrats have succeeded in electing representatives from Chester County to the state legislature. Gaining 25,000 votes at the top of the ticket helps, but the area is still competitive. But in many other counties in Pennsylvania, the Democrats went from winning 50 percent or 40 percent to winning only 30 percent or 20 percent. The result is that many more legislative seats became so lopsidedly red that downticket Democrats no longer have a fighting chance.

In this sense, not all votes are equal. It’s more valuable for the Democrats to add a voter in a rural area than one in a competitive suburb, and rural votes are definitely of more use than added votes in seats where Democrats are already winning by comfortable margins.

Longman confines his analysis to Pennsylvania, which is obviously a critical state in Presidential elections as well as one that has been greatly affected by strongly partisan gerrymanders. Be that as it may, I wanted to look at how this perspective applies to Texas. It’s been my perception that Texas’ rural legislative districts, which had already been strongly Republican at the federal level but which still elected Democrats to the State House, had become more and more hostile to Democrats since the 2010 election, when nearly all of those Democratic legislators from rural districts were wiped out. If that’s the case, then the increased redness of these districts, while problematic as a whole for statewide purposes, doesn’t change anything in terms of legislative opportunities. On the other hand, if the suburbs are becoming less red, that would open up new possibilities, both now and in the future as this is where much of the population growth is.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. To check it, I took the electoral breakdown of the State House districts for the 2012 and 2016 elections from the Legislative Council, and put the results from the Presidential election into a new sheet. I also added the results from the Keasler/Burns (2016) and Keller/Hampton (2012) Court of Criminal Appeals races in there, to act as a more neutral comparison. I then sorted the spreadsheet by the Romney percentage for each district, in descending order, and grouped them by ranges. I calculated the change in R and D vote from 2012 to 2016 for each district in both the Presidential and CCA races, then summed them up for each of the ranges I defined. That’s a lot of words, so let’s see what this looks like, and I’ll explain it again from there:


Romney 70%+ (42 districts)

Trump     + 143,209    CCA R   + 267,069
Clinton   +  36,695    CCA D   -   8,330


Romney 60-70% (31 districts)

Trump     +  15,054    CCA R   + 135,280
Clinton   + 164,820    CCA D   + 116,534


Romney 50-60% (23 districts)

Trump     -  32,999    CCA R   +  69,230
Clinton   + 148,633    CCA D   + 101,215


Romney 40-50% (9 districts)

Trump     +   3,081    CCA R   +  16,418
Clinton   +  45,233    CCA D   +  39,721


Romney 30-40% (20 districts)

Trump     -   9,360    CCA R   +  17,429
Clinton   +  84,385    CCA D   +  69,785


Romney < 30% (25 districts)

Trump     -   3,485    CCA R   +  23,031
Clinton   +  90,251    CCA D   +  76,447

Let’s start at the top. There were 42 district in which Mitt Romney collected at least 70% of the vote in 2012. In those 42 districts, Donald Trump got 143,209 more votes than Romney did, while Hillary Clinton gained 36,695 more votes than Barack Obama. In the CCA races, Republicans gained 267,069 votes while Democrats lost 8,330 votes. Which tells us two things: The pro-Republican shift in these already very strong R districts was pronounced, but even here there were some people that refused to vote for Trump.

Now that doesn’t address the urban/suburban/rural divide. You get into some rhetorical issues here, because West Texas includes some decent-sized metro areas (Lubbock, Midland, Abilene, etc), but is still more rural in character than anything else, and some primarily suburban counties like Montgomery and Williamson include sizable tracts of farmland. Keeping that in mind, of the 42 counties in this group, I’d classify nine as urban/suburban, and the other 33 as rural. To be specific:


Dist  County      Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton     Diff
==========================================================
015   Montgomery  57,601  56,038  16,348   24,253 D +9,468
016   Montgomery  45,347  52,784  10,229   12,666 R +5,000
020   Williamson  49,271  56,644  17,913   20,808 R +4,478
024   Galveston   49,564  51,967  16,936   20,895 D +1,556
033   Collin      51,437  56,093  18,860   27,128 D +3,612
063   Denton      50,485  53,127  18,471   24,600 D +3,487
098   Tarrant     58,406  57,917  18,355   25,246 D +7,390
128   Harris      40,567  40,656  14,907   17,165 D +2,347
130   Harris      53,020  55,187  15,928   22,668 D +4,583

These are urban/suburban districts among those were 70% or more for Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton gained votes everywhere except in the two, with the two exceptions being the most rural among them; HD16 is the northernmost part of Montgomery County, including Conroe, while HD20 has most of its population in Georgetown and includes Burnet and Milam Counties as well. In the other 33 districts, all of which I’d classify as rural, Clinton did worse than Obama in all but three of them, CDs 82 (Midland County, Tom Craddick’s district, where she had a net gain of 16 – yes, 16 – votes), 81 (Ector County, which is Odessa and Brooks Landgraf’s district, net gain of 590 votes), and 06 (Smith County, home of Tyler and Matt Schaefer, net gain of 871).

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you here, so let me sum up: Hillary Clinton absolutely got blitzed in rural Texas, with the gap between her and Donald Trump increasing by well over 100,000 votes compared to the Obama/Romney difference. However, all of this was concentrated in legislative districts that were far and away he least competitive for Democrats to begin with. The net loss of potentially competitive legislative races in these parts of the state is exactly zero.

Everywhere else, Clinton gained on Obama. More to the point, everywhere else except the 60-70% Romney districts, downballot Democrats gained. Even in that group, there were big steps forward, with HDs 66 and 67 (both in Collin County, both held by Freedom Caucus types) going from over 60% for Romney to under 50% for Trump, while HD26 in Fort Bend went from nearly 63% for Romney to barely 50% for Trump. They’re still a challenge at lower levels, but they’re under 60% red and they’re the swing districts of the immediate future.

Now I want to be clear that losing the rural areas like this does have a cost for Democrats. The reason Dems came as close as they did to a majority in 2008 is because they held about a dozen seats in rural areas, all holdovers from the old days when nearly everyone was a Democrat. Those seats went away in 2010, and with the exception of the one that was centered on Waco, none of them are remotely competitive going forward. The end result of this is that the most optimistic scenario I can paint barely puts the Dems above 70 members, not enough for a majority. To have a real shot at getting a majority sometime in the next decade or two, Dems are going to have to figure out how to compete in smaller metro areas – Lubbock, Abilene, Tyler, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, etc etc etc – all of which are a little bit urban and a little bit more rural. Some of these places have growing Latino populations, some of them are experiencing the same kinds of problems that the larger urban areas are facing. Becoming competitive in the suburbs is great, but there’s still a lot more to this very large state of ours.

Anyway. I can’t speak for places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in Texas I’d call the rural/suburban tradeoff we saw in 2016 to be a positive step. There are plenty more steps to take, but this was a good one to begin with.

The bathroom bill is a threat to Quidditch

How much more do you need to know?

It’s not quite time to get out the broomsticks in Round Rock. A national quidditch tournament headed to town next year has been put on hold while legislators consider the bathroom bill during their special session, said Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan.

U.S. Quidditch recently told the city that it wasn’t going to sign a contract to come to Round Rock until it finds out what happens with the bathroom bill, Morgan said. He said he couldn’t provide further details.

The city announced in early July that the U.S. Quidditch Cup 11 would April 14-15, 2018, at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex.

[…]

If the city starts losing big tournaments because of the bathroom bill, Morgan said, it could have an effect on taxpayers who voted to allocate a half-cent of the sales tax for property tax relief.

“If events start leaving I think we will have to increase taxes or cut services if it becomes a big enough impact,” said Morgan.

Here’s the news story of the announcement that the 2018 Cup would be held in Round Rock, and here’s the US Quidditch webpage about it. Note that Wichita Falls will host the Southwest Regional Championship in partnership with Wichita Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau on February 24-25, 2018, and also that Lubbock – specifically, the West Rec Grass and Turf Complex Fields at Texas Tech University – was the runnerup to Round Rock for the finals. (It was not mentioned in this story if the Wichita Falls event is also in peril, but one assumes so.) My daughters and I saw a Quidditch match at Rice a couple of years ago, with teams from colleges around the country. It’s maybe not quite as exciting as it is in the books and movies, but it’s got a following. And it’s in danger of being taken away by our ongoing potty wars. If you’re a Quidditch fan or a concerned Round Rock taxpayer, you should reach out to Rep. Larry Gonzales and Sen. Charles Schwertner and tell them not to kill off this event.

MJ Hegar in CD31

Very cool.

MJ Hegar

In a Texas congressional district that includes one of the country’s largest military bases, a military hero is betting she can stage a political upset.

Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is launching a Democratic challenge against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in Texas’ solidly red 31st Congressional District.

“I see a threat to our Constitution, our democracy,” Hegar said in a recent interview, “and I feel compelled to do something more about it.”

Hegar served three tours in Afghanistan as a search-and-rescue pilot, and in 2009, she saved the lives of her passengers after her medevac helicopter was shot down by the Taliban. She subsequently received the Purple Heart as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device.

She went on to become a fierce advocate for women in the military, helping lead a 2012 lawsuit against the Defense Department over its now-repealed policy excluding women from ground combat positions.

Hegar’s memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front,” was published earlier this year and is being made into a film. Angelina Jolie is reportedly in talks to star in it.

Carter’s district has been reliably Republican, but Hegar, now an executive coach and consultant living in Austin, believes she can flip it, confident in her ability to garner crossover support with her experience at the national and international levels. She said her decision to run was partly motivated by the election of President Donald Trump, who has caused concern among even his own party’s national security professionals.

“I think being a Republican is not what it used to be,” Hegar said. “Even though [the district] is historically Republican, I think some people are voting Republican because they have a misperception of what the Democratic Party is.”

[…]

National Democrats are currently targeting three Republican incumbents in Texas that party leaders view as vulnerable: U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Will Hurd of Helotes and Pete Sessions of Dallas. Carter is not on that list, but Hegar is urging them to pay attention.

“Please look closer,” she said her message is to groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Three observations:

1. On paper at least, it’s hard to imagine a more appealing candidate. Military hero, young mother, former Republican, possibly being played by Angelina Jolie in a movie. I mean, if she didn’t actually exist I’d have sworn she was the figment of a Democratic strategist’s overactive imagination. What that translates into in an actual campaign remains to be seen, but I feel confident saying this will not be the only feature story written about her candidacy.

2. Not to be a buzzkill, but the reason the DCCC hadn’t given CD31 much thought is simply that it’s not terribly competitive. It only went 52-40 for Trump after going 59-38 for Romney, but it was 57-37 downballot, which was no change from 2012. Incumbent Rep. John Carter was re-elected 58-36 in 2016 and 61-35 in 2012. If anyone has the creds to win crossover votes it’s Hegar, but she has a lot of ground to cover, and who knows how many gettable Republicans there are in that district, or anywhere.

3. As the story notes, there are three other candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in CD31: fellow veteran Kent Lester; Dr. Christine Eady Mann, a family physician in Cedar Park; and Mike Clark, who was Carter’s opponent last year. Both the fact that there is a crowded field vying to run in this not-a-swing-district and the fact that there is a candidate with star potential like Hegar are further indicators of Democratic enthusiasm for 2018. I’ll put it to you this way: CD31 has existed since the 2002 election. This would be the first time in its history that it would have a contested Democratic primary, let alone a more-than-two-candidate race.

Hegar’s website is here, Kent Lester’s is here, Christine Eady Mann’s is here, and Mike Clark’s is here. We won’t see a finance report for Hegar till the end of the third quarter, but I’ll be very interested to see how she does. If she wants to get the DCCC’s attention, that’s one way to do it.

Fifth Circuit to hear AALDEF lawsuit appeal

This happens today.

Amid last-minute efforts to overhaul the state’s voter identification law in light of an ongoing legal fight, the Texas Legislature gaveled out without addressing another embattled election law that’s now moving forward in federal court.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday will take up a legal challenge to an obscure provision in the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

That state law has been on hold since last year after a federal district judge ruled it violated the federal Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“There’s nothing that’s being imposed. The state just needs to get out of the way,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program.

[…]

“I don’t see how we could in legislative action place a criteria that would limit it more than a constitutional standard,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who filed one of the measures during this year’s regular legislative session that would’ve only left in place the assistor provision. “I just don’t think the state is serious about the right to vote or access to the election box. We just seem to bend over backwards to place barriers instead of working to increase voter turnout.”

Her legislation to bring the state in line with federal law languished in the Senate State Affairs Committee after colleagues raised concerns that it would allow voters to obtain help at the polls from noncitizens, Garcia said. The voter registration requirement by default requires the interpreter to be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old.

But sometimes voters ask their minor children to help them cast their ballots, Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero of Fort Worth told the House Elections Committee during an April hearing. His proposal was similar to Garcia’s and also did not advance out of committee.

Despite the intricacies between interpreters and assistors, the case could ultimately come down to a question of standing if the state has its way.

See here, here, and here for the background. There was a simple legislative fix to what really shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place – the state even admitted that the Williamson County election officials who created the fuss in the first place acted incorrectly – but nothing got done. The state is now claiming that the plaintiffs lack standing to pursue this litigation as the original voter has passed away, and I have a sinking feeling that if the Fifth Circuit doesn’t buy that argument, SCOTUS might. We’ll just have to see.

Bill to fix voting interpreters considered

This needs to happen, and it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters.

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county they are providing help.

The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”

Garcia’s proposal comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the state’s interpreter provision in a lawsuit brought by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of Das, who has since died, and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Because she had found it difficult to vote in the past, Das in 2014 brought her son, Saurabh, to help her cast her vote at a Williamson County polling place. But when her son told poll workers he was there to interpret the English ballot for his mother, they ran into the state’s interpreter requirements. Saurabh could not serve as an interpreter for his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

[…]

One provision of the state election code allows for “assistors.” It says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”

Yet a separate provision allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.” The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.

Garcia’s proposal would essentially consolidate all forms of assistance and remove any requirements related to voter registration.

While the measure has picked up support by the Texas Association of Election Administrators, representatives with the Harris County Clerk’s Office, including Ed Johnson, testified against Garcia’s proposal.

“In Harris County, we think the role of an interpreter is different to the role of an assistant,” Johnson said, adding that the issue was a currently a “moot point” because the law has been put on hold and court is “still working through that process.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The lawsuit in question is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit, but if Sen. Garcia’s bill were to pass, it would (I assume) moot the issue. I honestly don’t get the argument against this, but that doesn’t mean Stan Stanart isn’t going to do Stan Stanart things. Sen. Garcia’s bill was left pending in committee, and an identical bill by Rep. Ramon Romero was not withdrawn from the House Elections Committee schedule, so there has been no action taken yet. Contact your Senator on the State Affairs Committee if you want to see this bill get passed.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

John Bradley to leave Palau

He’s coming home.

Former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is resigning from his job as attorney general in the Republic of Palau.

Bradley sent a letter to the president of Palau on Sept. 13 announcing his plans to quit his job Nov. 30 due to family reasons.

[…]

The president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, said he was happy with Bradley’s performance, according to a local news website PacificNote. Bradley was hired as attorney general in Palau in 2014 and his contract was set to expire on Jan. 19, 2017. Palau is a tiny nation of 250 islands in the western Pacific southeast of the Philippines.

During his tenure in Palau, Bradley has clashed with the nation’s Vice President Antonio Bells, who suspended Bradley for insubordination in December 2015. Bradley, when contacted at the time by the American-Statesman, said he was not suspended.

Bells also sued Bradley and other officials in April, claiming that a U.S. grant was deposited into a nongovernmental account and expended illegally, according to the Pacific Report newspaper.

See here for the background. I don’t have anything to add, I’ve just been fascinated by this chapter in Bradley’s history. One wonders what Bradley will do when he returns stateside. It’s fairly common for former prosecutors to become defense attorneys once they leave that office, and if anyone can credibly claim to know the tricks and shenanigans that prosecutors pull against defendants, it’s John Bradley. I just can’t quite bring myself to accept the idea in this case.

More on the latest voting rights lawsuit ruling

Coverage from the Chron:

In contrast to the discourse over the voter ID law, it’s not clear there are many political stakes over the law [Judge Robert] Pitman tossed out Friday.

There are enough Hispanic and Latino voters in every county in Texas to mandate Spanish-language assistance at polls across the state, so Friday’s ruling does not apply to that segment of the population.

Instead, the interpreter case largely hones in on Asian Americans and other minorities in Texas, who in the vast majority of counties do not comprise enough of the population to require language-assistance at the polls, and thus often rely on interpreters. Many times, these voters are elderly and grew up speaking another language, [Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and one of the attorneys on the case] said, and rely on children, sometimes even minors, to be their interpreters and helpers at the polls.

Vattamala said that in Texas, Asian Americans vote equally for both Republicans and Democrats.

[…]

Pitman’s ruling Friday may be particularly significant in the Houston area, which has a large Asian population. While he did not have specific numbers, testimony in the case indicated that several voters in the Houston area have not been allowed to bring interpreters into the polls.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon responding to questions about the case and its impact on Harris County, a spokesman for county clerk Stan Stanart’s office said Stanart is “in favor of following the law. He has asked that we follow the law as mandated by the court and required by the Secretary of State.”

The statement indicates that voters will now be able to use “interpreters of their choosing” barring limitations prescribed by other laws that prohibit a voter’s employer or labor union representative to be their interpreter.

The spokesman, Hector DeLeon, said in the statement that the county makes ballots and elections materials available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.

“We also have advisory groups for Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese that engage the leadership in those communities to help educate the registered voters about the election process,” DeLeon said. “These groups meet to maintain close contact to engage the community, to find bilingual poll workers and to educate the public during an election cycle.”

See here and here for the background. Vattamala’s statement about how Asian-Americans vote in Texas is one for which I’d be very curious to see some detailed polling data, which unfortunately I rather doubt exists. We know that nationally in 2012, Asian-Americans voted for President Obama at a higher rate than Latinos did, something like 78-21 in the President’s favor. That doesn’t mean it was the same here – “Asian-American” is a very wide designation, covering many diverse nationalities, and as Latinos in Texas vote Republican at a higher rate than their counterparts elsewhere, it’s certainly possible the same holds true for Asian-Americans. I don’t know, and with all due respect I’m not sure that Jerry Vattamala has access to anything more than a deeper well of anecdotal data. I’m just saying I’d love to see some real data, with sufficient samples of varying nationalities to be able to draw good conclusions.

Back to the decision itself, the Texas Election Law Blog gives us some historical context on this:

The Texas Election Code is a mess, as I’ve pointed out before. Our election laws are a cruel jumble born of mean-spirited political expediency, sloth, torpor, and ignorance. One particular piece of work within this ramshackle edifice of vote suppression and general discouragement of the democratic process is Section 61.033 of the Election Code, which states that in order to serve as an interpreter for a voter who requires language assistance, “a person must be a registered voter of the county in which the voter needing the interpreter resides.”

The law, such as it is, has a long pedigree stretching back to 1918, (Act of March 23, 1918, 35th Leg., 4th C.S. Ch. 30 (H.B. 104), although a requirement that election officials could only communicate via English in the polling place was added by the Act of March 13, 1919, 36th Leg. Ch. 55 (S.B. 244), 1919 Tex. Gen. Laws p. 94), The 1919 law reflected a longstanding nativist fear (pumped up by anti-immigration sentiment after World War One) that some language other than English might intrude into the polling place; that fear is still reflected in Section 61.031(a) of the Election Code, which more-or-less tracks the xenophobia of the old 1919 law.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the state law was softened to permit language assistance at the same time that multilingual ballots were provided.

But … while Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act provides that voters should be able to make use of language assistance of their own choosing, the state law still exhibits a weird reluctance to help voters out by imposing that pesky “have to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter” requirement on interpreters.

That restriction found in the state law was never defensible (given that it directly contradicts federal law), but it’s interesting that it took so long for a group of plaintiffs to find a test case to knock it down.

Here’s a copy of the ruling, from that post. The key here is that the original plaintiff who needed the assistance, Mallika Das, was voting in Williamson County, while her son/interpreter, Saurabh Das, was registered in Travis County. When he told the election officials that, he was not allowed to act as interpreter for his mother. Everything else followed from there.

Anyway, it is unclear at this time if the state will appeal Judge Pitman’s ruling, so barring any further action people who need some language help at the ballot box can bring an interpreter of their choosing with them. Which is how it should have been all along.

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Good.

A federal judge Friday blocked Texas from enforcing a state law that limits the availability of interpreters in polling places, ruling that it violates protections guaranteed by the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mallika Das, who was born in India and who, in October 2014, brought her son into a Round Rock polling station to act as an interpreter because she had limited proficiency in English.

Officials at the Williamson County polling station, however, barred Saurabh Das from helping his mother, relying on a state election law that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the person they intend to help.

Because Saurabh Das was registered in Travis County, his mother had to vote without his help.

In a summary judgment relying on briefs and a hearing held Monday, Pitman ruled that the residency requirement violated Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees voters the right to be helped by a person of their choice if they need assistance because of blindness, disability or inability to read or write.

To enjoy the same opportunity to vote as other citizens, Pitman wrote, limited-language voters must be able to navigate polling stations and communicate with election officers.

“They must be able to understand and fill out any required forms, and to understand and to answer any questions directed at them by election officers. And they must be able to do so with the assistance of a person whom they trust,” the judge added.

In addition to voiding the law on interpreters at the ballot box, Pitman gave state lawyers seven days to provide him with “additional remedies” needed to protect the rights of limited-language voters. Lawyers for Das will have another seven days to respond to the state’s suggestions.

See here for the background. I can’t find much coverage of this, nor even as much as a press release from the Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Houston or Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who filed the lawsuit. As such, I can’t tell you anything more than what this story says. We know that the Lege passed a bill in 2013 by wide margins that would have addressed this issue, but Rick Perry vetoed it. A bad decision on his part, one of many he made over his too-long career. I’ll keep my eyes open for more information about those “additional remedies” the state is on the hook to provide.

UPDATE: Here’s the AALDEF statement.

John Bradley does John Bradley things

From Grits for Breakfast:

Former Williamson County District Attorney and Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley – who left Texas to become Attorney General of the island nation of Palau after facing national disapprobation, losing reelection, and struggling to find work in Texas as a prosecutor – has been suspended “for ten working days without pay on grounds of insubordination” by Palau’s Vice President, reported Pacific Beat.

In response, according to this source, Bradley issued a statement declaring the VP had no authority to suspend him, defending his record in Texas, suggesting the veep committed a felony by suspending him, and threatening a defamation suit.

Some people seem to make friends wherever they go.

This is vintage John Bradley; our man appears in top form.

The President, who is out of the country, was quoted as saying he hadn’t reviewed Bradley’s suspension but expected the vice president’s decision was made in the “best interest of the Republic.”

See here and here for the background. I admit, it’s a bit unseemly to keep piling on the man, who clearly can’t help himself. But honestly, how can one resist?

Another Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed

Naturally, it originates in Texas.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) sued the State of Texas, the Williamson County Elections Department, and the city of Round Rock for denying Asian American voters with limited English proficiency the right to an assistor of their choice, in violation of Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 208 provides that voters may choose anyone to assist them at the poll site, except their employer or union representative.

Jerry Vattamala, Director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program, said: “Asian Americans have had to overcome many barriers to exercise their right to vote, especially due to the lack of language assistance. Texas must comply with all provisions of the Voting Rights Act and allow voters to secure assistance from persons of their choice.”

Asian American voters benefit from section 208 because most jurisdictions in Texas are not required to provide Asian language interpreters. This provision allows limited English proficient (LEP) voters to be assisted by their friends or family members inside the voting booth.

AALDEF’s lawsuit challenges a provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter who needs assistance. This state requirement unduly restricts the range of individuals who are permitted to provide language assistance under Section 208.

Mallika Das, one of the plaintiffs, is a registered voter who lives in Williamson County, Texas. She brought her son, Saurabh Das, to assist her during the early voting period for the Midterm Elections on October 31, 2014. Poll workers did not allow Saurabh to assist his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County. As a result, Mrs. Das had to vote without language assistance from the person she had designated.

On behalf of the organizational plaintiff, OCA – Greater Houston president Cecil Fong said, “Section 208 is vitally important for the LEP Asian American community in Texas. The state law conflicts with the VRA and prevents qualified voters from receiving the assistance that they are guaranteed under federal law.”

The complaint seeks to enjoin Texas from continuing to attach unlawful requirements to interpreters, declare the Texas state law invalid, and ensure that Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act is properly enforced.

Fish & Richardson P.C., is pro bono counsel in this lawsuit. “Ensuring that all citizens have not only the right, but also the practical ability, to exercise their voting franchise helps our nation more fully realize the promise of our democratic system,” said Lawrence Kolodney, Chair of Fish’s Pro Bono Program. “Fish is proud to serve as co-counsel with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on this important and timely issue.”

I found this on Glen Maxey’s Facebook page, then found the link to the press release on the AALDEF Twitter feed, which has been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the VRA; here’s an article for the New York Law Journal that’s worth perusing. A copy of the lawsuit itself is here, and it’s pretty straightforward, as described in the press release. Maxey notes that two sessions ago he helped pass a bill allowing language minorities to bring an interpreter of their choice to the polls, thus bringing Texas into compliance with this part of the VRA, but then-Governor Perry vetoed it. The same bill was filed again this past session, but it didn’t go anywhere, and so here we are. I’ll keep an eye out for this.

More counties issuing same sex marriage licenses

Montgomery County:

RedEquality

Montgomery County Clerk Mark Turnbull said he turned one same-sex couple away on Friday who requested a marriage license, but wound up issuing the license after regular hours on Saturday.

He initially refused because he was waiting for clarification from the state on what form to use, but after the courthouse closed Friday evening, Texas Department of Health Services sent a revised form that removed all gender references and referred to those applying for the license only as “applicant one” and “applicant two,” Turnbull said.

With a new form in hand, he telephoned Pam Kunkle, 55, an insurance manager in Houston and her partner, Connie Moberley, 67, and asked them to return to the Montgomery County courthouse so he could issue the license Saturday.

“We needed some time to make adjustments with the language and make sure it worked on our computer program. We were glad they volunteered to come back and be our first guinea pig to make sure the system worked,” he said, adding none of the clerks in his office had raised any religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples. “We are officers with ministerial duties. We have no discretion. We follow rules listed in our handbook.”

However, he recalled a former employee who objected to issuing liquor licenses on moral grounds and said she later switched to another county job where that did not pose a problem.

That’s Montgomery County, one of the reddest in Texas. The theme of “we do what the law says we are to do” is one you will see again.

Tarrant County:

Tracey Knight didn’t know if the day would ever come when she would be legally married in the state of Texas.

At long last it did come Friday, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling swept away the state’s longtime ban against same-sex marriage.

“We dreamed of this day,” said Knight, a corporal with the Fort Worth Police Department who serves as the LGBT community liaison. “We weren’t sure if it would ever happen. Now we have started planning our wedding.”

Knight and her wife, Shannon, who wed two years ago in California but wanted to exchange vows again in Texas, shared smiles and tears Friday as they were the first same-sex couple in Tarrant County to receive a marriage license.

Several other counties in North Texas were awaiting “guidance” from AG Ken Paxton. Denton County, which had originally refused to issue same sex marriage licenses, has now become compliant with the law of the land.

The Denton County clerk’s office is now issuing same-sex marriage licenses, following Friday operations that turned at least three couples away.

Whitney Hennen and Sara Bollinger was the first same-sex couple in the county this morning to be given a marriage license.

On Sunday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared religious objections a legitimate excuse for county clerks and their staffs as a means of denying licenses to same-sex couples.

Denton County Clerk Juli Luke said she is opposed to gay and lesbian couples getting married for religious reasons, but maintained her personal beliefs cannot prevent her from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

“Moreover, my faith in Christ ensures I have compassion and respect for those who feel differently,” she wrote in a statement.

See, Ken Paxton? It’s not hard to do at all. Collin County has joined in as well, though several other counties in the area are not there yet.

Williamson County has fallen in line, too.

Williamson County is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as of 8 a.m. Monday. That comes after getting advice from County Attorney Dee Hobbs.

“I would like to acknowledge the gravity of the Supreme Court decision and the passion citizens have on both sides of this issue,” reads a statement by Hobbs, posted outside the Williamson County Clerk’s Office. “I would like to thank those that contacted this office for being respectful int heir questions and also understanding regarding time to review.”

That’s two outlaw counties that have come back to their senses. Smith County makes three, with Gregg thrown in as a bonus.

An East Texas same-sex couple became the first in Smith County to be issued a marriage license on Monday morning.

About 8:30 a.m., a couple showed up seeking a marriage license at the Smith County courthouse. Karen Wilkerson and her fiance Jolie Smith began the process to obtain their marriage license shortly after 8:30 a.m. and were issued the document about 9:20 a.m. The couple was the first to show up at the courthouse office.

The license was issued following a Friday Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Earlier in the day, the Smith County Vital Statistics Department was temporarily closed for a staff meeting. A sign posted in the courthouse said the department was also testing the system to accommodate new forms.

Smith County Clerk Karen Phillips said the state changed the vital statistic form needed to issue the licenses.

Midland County was a Friday adherent, but neighboring Ector was a holdout. Not any more.

Ector County Clerk Linda Haney will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, opting not to take an out offered by Attorney General Ken Paxton for clerks who wish to deny such licenses due to religious beliefs.

“I took an oath to uphold the law and I intend to follow the law,” Haney said, although the marriage licenses could not be issued early Monday morning because the new application was not yet available on the computer system.

Her decision comes after the Friday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that marriage is a Constitutional right for same-sex couples.
Sunday, Paxton issued an opinion that clerks could deny licenses based on religious beliefs, just as justices of the peace could decline to perform the weddings based on religious beliefs.

Haney, however, said she will follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and what she believes is the correct thing according to the law.

“An act of civil disobedience on my part would not honor my God and I don’t want to put my county at liability either,” Haney said. “I do have strong religious convictions and anybody that knows me knows what those convictions are. But I did take an oath and I will follow the law.”

Amazing how clear and simple that is, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see all these counties, from different parts of the state, ignore Ken Paxton’s advice and do the job they’re supposed to do. And congratulations to Karen Wilkerson and Jolie Smith!

Not all counties needed prodding. Fort Bend County had it right from the beginning.

While the topic has produced a variety of opinions among the American public, the Fort Bend County Clerk’s office has issued a direct statement – current marriage forms won’t be modified, but when new forms arrive for same-sex marriage, they will be honored in accordance with the new law.

Same-sex couples will be allowed to marry, using the current forms, until the updated ones arrive.

Again – easy peasy. So simple even Ken Paxton should be able to understand it. Let’s let Brazoria County explain it to him anyway, just in case.

After an opinion from the District Attorney’s office this afternoon, County Clerk Joyce Hudman said Brazoria County is officially issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Hudman said her offices have been issuing licenses since 1:30 p.m. and will throughout the day.

District Attorney Jeri Yenne gave the county clerk’s office a one-sentence opinion that issuing same-sex marriage licenses is mandatory based on the Supreme Court’s decision today.

“As a follow-up to your inquiry regarding marriage licenses, please be advised that on today’s date, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion indicating the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex,” Yenne’s memo reads.

After getting that memo, Hudman said her offices were instructed to grant the licenses.

One couple already has obtained a marriage license from the Pearland clerk’s office, she said.

A “one-sentence opinion” that explained the facts. Are we going to fast for you, Kenny?

Unfortunately, every state has its slow learners.

“I’m standing up for my religious liberty,” said Hood County Clerk Katie Lang, who said her office would not give out same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds. “I do believe that marriage is for one man and one woman because it did derive from the Bible.”

After the decision Friday, some county officials said they would wait to hear from state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who issued a written opinion Sunday saying clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriages can refuse to issue those licenses. But if they do so, he wrote, they might face fine or lawsuits.

Paxton said pro bono lawyers would be ready to defend those who refuse, noting “the reach of the Court’s opinion stops at the door of the First Amendment and our laws protecting religious liberty.” Lang said after reading Paxton’s opinion, she chose to face possible legal action.

“I could get fined and I could get sued,” she said, “but you could get sued for anything.”

You can also be held in contempt of court if it comes down to it. And remember, for this you could be sued personally, not just named as a defendant in an action against the county or your office. But hey, every cause needs a martyr, and I’m sure that future Fox News gig will be sweet.

That’s about all the counties I have the energy to look up today. Other resources: The DMN has an interactive map that’s at least somewhat inaccurate since they have no report on Fort Bend’s status. The Current has contacted a bunch of Hill Country counties and reports that all except possibly Kerr are now in compliance. Glen Maxey has been keeping tabs on Facebook – see here for his running count, and be sure to see the comments for updates. If you don’t see your favorite county listed somewhere, you may just have to call the Clerk’s office there yourself. Overall, though, the picture is pretty good and it appears to be improving. All the national headlines have been about Paxton and his get-out-of-following-the-law opinion for County Clerks, but at this point very few clerks, almost none in larger counties, have heeded him. Unlike Greg Abbott, they understand how the law works and they respect it. Paxton’s words – and Dan Patrick’s, and Greg Abbott’s, and Ted Cruz’s – will make Texas look bad to the rest of the country, but at least we still have enough sensible local officials to maybe mitigate that a bit.

In closing, here’s a non-legal opinion regarding a better way for county clerks with religious objections to handle this:

Religious freedom is so central to our nation that no public official should be required to do anything that violates the religious principles that direct his or her life.

And there is clear and proper recourse here for any public official who, as a result of this landmark change in the law, finds himself or herself uncomfortable with or unable to perform the revised duties of office.

They should quit.

Amen. Thankfully, very few of them have decided that they cannot do their jobs. Let’s hope the remainders follow their lead and not Paxton’s. Trail Blazers and BOR have more.