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March 4th, 2016:

Friday random ten – H-Town represent

Houston’s own The Suffers released their first album recently. They’ve been playing a relentless schedule of live gigs, and finally polished off the debut disc in the studio, thanks in part to a Kickstarter campaign? Who are The Suffers? I’m glad you asked. In honor of them and their march to musical domination, here are some of my favorite Houstonian artists.

1. Make Some Room – The Suffers
2. Single Ladies – Beyonce
3. Sharp Dressed Man – ZZ Top
4. Church – Lyle Lovett
5. Golden – The Tontons
6. Boogie Palace (In The Heights) – Ezra Charles and The Works
7. Better Than A Dream – Trish & Darin
8. Born Blonde – Wild Moccasins
9. No Matter What Goes Right – Trout Fishing In America
10. Summer Camp – Leah White

Ezra Charles was born in Beaumont, but he’s a Rice grad and he and his band were the house musicians for the Rockets in the 90s, so he more than counts. If you haven’t already clicked over to YouTube to check out The Suffers, I suggest you start with their incandescent appearance on Letterman, as well as their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy!

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.

vote-button

Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

Appeals court upholds Wilson residency ruling

No surprise.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

A state appeals court has sided with Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson in a lengthy legal fight over whether he lives in the district he represents.

Ever since Wilson was elected to the HCC board in 2013, the Harris County Attorney’s office has argued that he did not actually live in the district when he ran to represent it.

At issue is whether Wilson lived in an apartment in a warehouse on West 34th Street or with his wife at a home outside the district, which he has listed on tax forms. In 2014, a jury unanimously determined Wilson lived at the 34th Street address. A judge later upheld the ruling, and now the state appeals court has done the same.

“The State…did not conclusively establish that Wilson did not reside at West 34th Street on November 5, 2013,” the ruling says. “Wilson, on the other hand, presented evidence that he started living at the West 34th Street property in early 2012; that he intends for that property to be his residence; that he spends most of his time at that property, including sleeping there five nights a week; that he keeps personal belongings and receives personal mail at that address; and that while he spends two nights a week at the Lake Lane house, he always returns to the West 34th Street property.”

[…]

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement that he was disappointed by the court’s ruling, but not surprised, because ” ‘residency’ as the court outlines, is basically where one says he or she lives with relatively insignificant requirements to establish that residency under the law.”

See here and here for the background. I appreciate the County Attorney pursuing this, but we are at the end of the line. Any further pursuit of this matter should be in the Legislature, an option Vince Ryan alluded to in his statement. We’ve discussed this before, and at this point I’d favor an approach that says 1) you can’t claim a homestead exemption at one address and a voter registration at another, and 2) you can’t claim a homestead exemption in one taxing entity (city, county, school district, etc) and run for office in another. No approach to this is foolproof, but this would at least attach a cost to the “I live where I say I live” shenanigans, and that may be the best we can do.

On a side note, I wonder if the absolute thrashing Wilson got in his attempt to knock off Rep. Jessica Farrar in HD148 – she beat him by an 88.1 to 11.9 margin, which is the kind of spread one normally sees when a candidate has only third-party opposition – is partly the result of all the publicity Wilson has reaped from his fluke election to the HCC Board in 2013 and the subsequent attempts to disqualify him. He can’t operate in the shadows the way he used to, because now many more people know who he is and what he’s about. If so, then that’s one positive thing that has come out of this mess.

If you don’t have ID, you probably can’t get it

Just another reminder that our voter ID law sucks.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

At the time, civil rights groups and Democrats pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Texans lacked a driver license or other government-sanctioned forms of photo ID, and that cost and access could be a barrier to acquiring them. In one of the few concessions to opponents, Republicans agreed to create a new form of ID, the election identification certificate (EIC). The EIC is free to any qualifying voter as long as you can produce some combination of an array of underlying documentation, such as a birth certificate, Social Security card and proof of residence.

But years into the voter ID experiment, the EIC has been all but forgotten — by voters and by elections administrators alike.

In the three years since Texas began issuing EICs, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has issued only 653 EICs across the state — only one ID for every 1,200 Texans who lack voter ID.

In a survey of 46 counties that issue their own EICs, the Observer found that many elections administrators had little to no familiarity with the ID, and some expressed surprise that anyone would inquire about it.

Most of Texas’ 254 counties have a DPS driver license bureau equipped to issue EICs. But at least 68 counties in rural, sparsely-populated parts of the state lack a DPS office. Of those, DPS deploys a mobile unit to 22. The remaining 46 counties issue EICs through their county offices. We were able to speak with elections personnel in 32 of those counties.

Employees at three of the counties we called — Kinney, LaSalle and Lynn counties – said they had never heard of EICs, and couldn’t direct us to place to learn more. (DPS has information on its website.) LaSalle County has issued three EICs since 2013, according to DPS data.

“About what?” said an employee at Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, when the Observer called to ask about obtaining an EIC. “I have no idea. We do vehicle registration here — I’ve never heard of that.”

Nobody could have seen this coming, blah blah blah. The federal lawsuit against Texas’ voter ID law is awaiting an en banc ruling from the Fifth Circuit, and from there of course it will go to SCOTUS, which may or may not have a ninth member by then. There’s also a lawsuit in state court, which is still in the starting gates. Barring anything unusual, the law will be in effect this November. If you don’t have a drivers license and aren’t eligible to vote by mail, the odds are pretty good you won’t be able to vote.

More on the UIL ban of transgender athletes

From ThinkProgress:

Transgender rights in Texas took another step backward last month, when public school superintendents voted 586-32 in favor of a rule that requires schools to use birth certificates to determine the gender of student-athletes.

This law is seen not only as “an attempt to handicap transgender student-athletes’ eligibility,” but it’s also believed to be a clear violation of Title IX.

“The Department of Education has stated that Title IX covers trans students and prohibits discrimination based on gender. Not only is [this policy] not in line with the law, but it also runs counter to the recommended policies by the National Center for Lesbian Rights,” Neena Chaudhry, the Senior Counsel and Director of Equal Opportunities in Athletics at the National Women’s Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “The recommendation is that children will be able to play on a team consistent with gender identity.”

With this ruling, Texas has become one of the least-inclusive states for transgender athletes.

Using students’ birth certificates, rather than their gender identities, to place them on a team has been an informal policy in Texas for some time. But in October, the University Interscholastic League — the governing body of Texas high-school sports — decided to send the policy to the superintendents for a vote. The results of that vote, which took place in January, were released by the Texas Observer last week. It will be officially enacted on August 1.

[…]

In 2014, the Department of Education (DOE) clarified that Title IX nondiscrimination protections did extend to transgender student-athletes. Christina Kahrl of ESPNreports that Texas is budget to receive $3.2 billion from the DOE in 2016 and 2017; that money could be lost if they are found in violation of Title IX. ThinkProgress reached out to the DOE for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

“The goal of Title IX is to have an environment free of discrimination, so schools need to remember that and make sure they’re not discriminating against any of their students,” Chaudhry said.

See here and here for the background. That’s a lot of money potentially at stake here. One wonders if the school districts that voted to adopt this policy were briefed on that. (One also wonders what HISD thinks of this change, but so far there has been no local reporting on this that I know of.) Since this new policy won’t be formally adopted until August, it’s hard to say how long it might take for the Justice Department to act. It’s certainly not out of the question that the matter could be unresolved as of November, in which case the election may change things. I doubt President Trump’s Department of Education would care to enforce this. Be that as it may, that’s a lot of money at risk, for a change that did not need to be made. TransAthlete has more.