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August 27th, 2020:

Republicans try and fail to remove Libertarian candidates from the ballot

From Patrick Svitek:

The Third Court of Appeals decision is here. You may be wondering, why did this same court agree to boot three Green candidates off the ballot last week, for the same reason of not paying filing fees? A good question, with a straightforward answer in the opinion.

Basically, the key difference is timing. By state law, the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot is 74 days before the general election, which this year was August 21. The same date is also the deadline for removing an ineligible candidate’s name from the ballot. A candidate who has withdrawn, or been declared ineligible, or died after this date will still appear on the ballot. Recent examples of the latter include Sen. Mario Gallegos in 2012 and State Rep. Glenda Dawson in 2006. If the ineligible/withdrawn/deceased candidate wins the election (as was the case in those two examples I cited), there is then a vacancy for the office, because that person cannot take office, and thus there is the need for a special election to fill that vacancy.

How that matters in this case is that the plaintiffs (“relators” in Appeals Court-speak) waited too long to take action. The relators included the NRCC, the Republican Party of Travis County, and Rep. Van Taylor. As outlined in the Dem cases against the Greens, they asked via email the Libertarian Party of Texas to disqualify the candidates that didn’t pay the filing fee, and then followed that up with the filing to the Third Court. The problem was, they sent that email “late in the evening on Thursday, August 20”, and filed their mandamus petitions on the 21st (the NRCC in the morning, the Travis County GOP at 9:19 PM). That did not leave adequate time for the Libertarian Party to respond, and it also means that the legal deadline I just mentioned had already passed. Here’s the analysis of the case from the court’s ruling:

“The law is clear that a challenge to the candidacy of an individual becomes moot ‘when any right which might be determined by the judicial tribunal could not be effectuated in the manner provided by law.’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting Polk v. Davidson, 196 S.W.2d 632, 634 (Tex. 1946) (orig. proceeding)). “If a challenge to a candidate’s eligibility ‘cannot be tried and a final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes by officials charged with the duty of preparing for the holding of the election,’ we must dismiss the challenge as moot.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Crawford, 747 S.W.2d 938, 940 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1988, orig. proceeding)).

The Texas Election Code provides that “[a] candidate’s name shall be omitted from the ballot if the candidate withdraws, dies, or is declared ineligible on or before the 74th day before election day.” Tex. Elec. Code § 145.035. However, “[i]f a candidate dies or is declared ineligible after the 74th day before election day, the candidate’s name shall be placed on the ballot.” Id. § 145.039. “If the name of a deceased, withdrawn, or ineligible candidate appears on the ballot under this chapter, the votes cast for the candidate shall be counted and entered on the official election returns in the same manner as for the other candidates.” Id. § 145.005(a).

Because relators waited to file their challenge to a total of 30 candidates until the last possible day this Court could grant the relief they seek, they made it impossible for the Court to obtain the information and briefing needed to afford due process and make a reasoned decision until less than 74 days remained before election day. Accordingly, even if this Court were to conclude based on the mandamus record that respondents have a statutory duty to declare the real parties in interest ineligible, their names would remain on the ballot and any votes cast for them would be counted. See id. §§ 145.039, .005(a); see also Brimer, 265 S.W.3d at 928 (holding that challenge to candidate’s eligibility for general election becomes moot when it cannot be tried and final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes); accord Smith, 747 S.W.2d at 940 (“This is true, even though the contestant may have good cause or grounds for the contest.”) (citing Cummins v. Democratic Exec. Comm’n 97 S.W.2d 368, 369 (Tex. App.—Austin 1936, no writ)). No order that this Court might enter would be effective to change this result. The Republican Party candidates’ only legally recognized interest in pursuing this mandamus is to avoid being opposed by an ineligible candidate—an outcome that we cannot, at this point, change.

In other words, if the Republicans wanted the Libertarians who didn’t pay the fee off the ballot, they needed to act sooner than they did, in order to meet the statutory deadline for removing those candidates’ names from the ballot and also to give them their due process rights to respond to the allegations. Because they waited as long as they did, the law was clear that the candidates’ names would remain on the ballot, even if they were indeed ineligible. If one of those Libertarians were to win, then (I presume, anyway) there could be a subsequent lawsuit over whether they could take office or not, but that would be a fight for another day. They snoozed, they lost, better lawyering next time.

One more thing, from a footnote to the analysis of the case:

We note that relators seek the same relief that was sought and granted in our recent opinion, In re Davis, No. 03-20-00414-CV, __S.W.3d__, 2020 WL 4931747 (Tex. App.—Austin Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding). There, the petition for mandamus was filed four business days before the statutory deadline. To assure due process to respondents, this Court required responses in one business day, the same as it did here. And in In re Davis, the candidates themselves brought the challenge. While it is clear that “a candidate for the same office has ‘an interest in not being opposed by an ineligible candidate,’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting In re Jones, 978 S.W.2d 648, 651 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1998, orig. proceeding [mand. denied]) (per curiam)), respondents in this proceeding challenge whether political parties have an interest sufficient to confer standing to pursue mandamus relief. See Colvin v. Ellis Cnty. Republican Exec. Comm’n, 719 S.W.2d 265, 266 (Tex. App.—Waco 1986, no writ) (holding that “voter” who was opposing political party’s chair had no justiciable interest apart from general public and could not bring suit to enjoin candidacy of ineligible candidates). We need not reach this issue or the other legal and evidentiary arguments raised by respondents because we are disposing of the mandamus petitions based on mootness.

In other words, the question of who raised this challenge to the Libertarian candidates would have been an issue for the court to decide if the matter was not moot. I should note that the Brimer v. Maxwell case cited in that footnote was a reference to a challenge brought by then-Sen. Kim Brimer against Wendy Davis for the 2008 election. There had been a prior challenge made by some Fort Worth firefighters who alleged that Davis did not resign her Fort Worth City Council seat in time to file for the Democratic primary, but that case was dismissed because the court ruled those plaintiffs did not have standing. Brimer did have standing, but a district court ruled in Davis’ favor and a subsequent appeal was denied in part because it was way past the deadline to boot anyone from the ballot. You never know what tidbits of interest can lurk in these things. Anyway, that should be that for now.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

Hope now, support relief efforts next

This is so, so bad. And it’s terrifying to realize how much worse it could have been.

With winds topping 150 mph, Hurricane Laura is approaching Category 5 status as it barrels toward the Texas-Louisiana border.

As of 7 p.m., the system was located about 120 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving toward the coast at about 15 mph. It remains course to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight, according to the National Weather Service. A roughly 150-mile stretch of coastline from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, is expected to take the brunt of the storm’s impact.

Wind speeds and water levels are currently rising along the northwest Gulf coast. Sustained winds of 39 mph were reported at 6 p.m. along the southern-most edge of the Louisiana coast. Heavy rains also are beginning to spread onshore. The hurricane center said “possible tornadoes” were sprouting from Laura’s outer bands at 7 p.m. over southeastern Louisiana and extreme southwestern Mississippi.

Regions directly in Hurricane Laura’s path and east of the storm face catastrophic consequences from what the National Hurricane Center called an “extremely dangerous” storm expected to ravage portions of the northwest Gulf coast with “unsurvivable” storm surge, extreme wind and widespread flash flooding.

A tornado watch is expected to last through 9 p.m. for areas east of the Houston area and most of the Louisiana coast. The pressure around the storm has dropped to about 940 mb. Outer swaths of rain have been whipping across inland areas, with gusty winds and downpours expected in Liberty and Chambers counties.

How bad is Hurricane Laura? This bad:

Never good to be grouped with Katrina and Rita. And as bad as this is, shift this thing 150 miles west for a direct hit on Houston, and, well, I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of articles out now about how bad that would be. We need the Ike Dike ASAP, but we need more than that, too. We’re sitting on dynamite and playing with matches until we take this seriously.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 24

The Texas Progressive Alliance is fired up and ready to vote as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.