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September 26th, 2020:

Straight ticket voting reinstated (for now)

That was unexpected.

Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.

In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”

Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”

She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.

“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”

See here and here for the background. This was a Democracy Docket case, and so they have a copy of the original complaint and the judge’s order. The complaint wasn’t any different the second time around, but the set of plaintiffs was. Beyond that, the main difference was the extent of the pandemic since the original case was dismissed in late June. The judge cites how much worse the spread of the virus has gotten, as well as the difficulties counties had running the primary runoffs in July – fewer voting locations, harder time getting poll workers – as justification for reversing her original dismissal. She also noted the extra time it takes to vote Texas’ long ballots; I’m guessing this opinion was written a few days ago, because that recent Harris County study was not cited.

I presume this will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit before the weekend is out, and I expect they will put a stay on the order pending whatever review they’re going to do. Or maybe not, I don’t know, we’re getting awfully close to “we really need to finalize the ballot and configure the voting machines” time. The judge also noted in the ruling that it would be less confusing to the voters to restore straight ticket voting at this late time than to not have it, since we have not had such an election yet. I think the real danger of confusion is having everyone talk about this ruling for a few days and then have it blocked by the appeals court, but that’s just me. For now, we’ll be voting like it’s 2018 again. For now. The Chron has more.

Trib overview of the Senate race

It really comes down to the top of the ticket. There’s no getting around it.

MJ Hegar

Even before a pandemic struck, protests over racial justice took to the streets and a vacancy opened on the U.S. Supreme Court, this year’s U.S. Senate race was poised to be different from the last one in Texas.

John Cornyn is not as polarizing as Ted Cruz, the thinking went, and MJ Hegar is no Beto O’Rourke.

Add in a wave of news and other high-profile 2020 contests, and Texas voters are getting a much lower-octane race, a far cry from Cruz’s battle royale against O’Rourke and all its theatrics.

But that does not mean this year’s race is lacking in contrast.

As he embarks on the final several weeks of his quest for a fourth term, Cornyn is pitching himself as a “steady hand on the wheel” who has the stature to guide Texas through a turbulent time. Hegar, meanwhile, is happily running to the contrary — as a disruptive change agent who can usher in a new era of federal representation for a changing Texas.

While Hegar’s pitch is broadly similar to what O’Rourke’s was, Cornyn is taking a notably different path than Cruz, a student of base-first politics who believed what he needed most in 2018 was maximum conservative turnout. Instead, Cornyn is running for reelection with more appeals to the political center, often inviting questions — most vocally from Hegar — about whether his rhetoric matches his record.

But in any case, it is a dynamic destined to shape the final several weeks of the top statewide race after the presidential contest.

[…]

At the end of the day, Cornyn’s fate may be tied to Trump more than anyone else come November. Asked about his biggest challenge this November, Cornyn brought up the massive turnout that is expected, largely driven by the polarizing president, and how different it will be from when he was last on the ballot. A total of 4.6 million people participated in the 2014 Senate election, and Cornyn said he likely will have to garner more votes than that alone this fall to win a fourth term.

With Trump dominating the political landscape across the country, Cornyn said he does not “just want to kind of surf the waves of national news cycles” and wants to make a case for himself independent of Trump. The president gave Cornyn an early reelection endorsement, helping to ensure a noncompetitive primary.

Cornyn occasionally offers gentle dissent with the president but has not emphatically broken with him on any major issue in recent memory. When it comes to the November election, he said he would like Trump to talk more about his accomplishments, namely on the economy — and that he has expressed as much to the president.

“To me the real question in this election is: Who do you think is best suited to help rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic?” Cornyn said. “Is it Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Or is it Donald Trump and Mike Pence? And for me, it’s not even close.”

Beyond policy, though, Hegar has sought to make the race almost as much about character, pitching herself as a stronger avatar of Texas toughness.

In ads, Hegar talks up her military heroism and rides her motorcycle, and on the stump, she has denounced Cornyn as a “spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser.” She defended the approach in the interview, saying it is “important people understand his level of cowardice because I’ve been to D.C.” — to lobby for women in combat — and she has seen firsthand what it takes to overcome adversity there.

I agree with John Cornyn, it will take more than 4.6 million votes to win in November. That’s actually not saying much – even Wayne Christian topped 4.6 million in 2016, with the statewide judicial candidates all exceeding 4.7 million and in some cases 4.8 million. Five million seems like the bare minimum to win, and let’s be honest, that is a bigger leap for Dems to make, since Beto was the first Dem ever to top four million. To that extent, the Presidential race almost certainly helps Dems like Hegar more than it does Republicans like Cornyn. It’s still a big gap to close. The capacity is there, and Dems took a huge leap forward in 2018, but let’s keep the magnitude of the task in mind.

How much this race will be distinguished from the Presidential race is unclear. This is literally the first race on the ballot after the Presidential race, so any concerns about the lack of straight ticket voting should be minimal. I’ve seen maybe one ad for each candidate so far – Lacey Hull and Lizzie Fletcher, neither of whom are on my ballot, have been a much more frequent presence on my teevee. The Beto/Cruz race in 2018 was the top of that ticket, both literally and practically, since the Governor’s race was a much quieter affair. Some people may decide to vote in this race, in particular to split a ticket in this race, based on the campaigns, but my guess is that will be minimal. If Joe Biden wins Texas, MJ Hegar has an excellent chance of beating John Cornyn; if Donald Trump wins Texas, Cornyn will almost certainly get re-elected. I think a Biden/Cornyn combination is slightly more likely than a Trump/Hegar parlay, but how probable either scenario is I have no idea. The main message here is what it’s always been: Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. It’s as simple as that.

And the PAC12 flip flops, too

Everyone’s playing football again.

The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season beginning Nov. 6, the league announced Thursday.

The decision, voted on by the Pac-12’s CEO group on Thursday, represents an official reversal after the conference announced in early August it would postpone all sports until at least Jan. 1, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been the result of what we said back in August — that we’d follow the science, follow the data, follow the advice from our medical experts,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, “and that we know how badly our student-athletes want to compete, as student-athletes for the Pac-12, but that we would only do so when we felt that we could do so safely.”

In a release, the Pac-12 said men’s and women’s basketball can begin Nov. 25 while other winter sports can begin in line with their respective NCAA seasons. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball, will continue to plan for a spring season.

[…]

In August, the Pac-12’s CEO group, which includes a president or chancellor from each university, voted unanimously to postpone the season. The explanation for the postponement included the need for daily rapid turnaround tests for COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a belief that would be possible during the fall.

However, that changed less than a month later when the conference reached an agreement with a company to provide daily tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are expected to be operational in early October.

Along with daily antigen testing, athletes will take at least one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test per week.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Pac-12 CEO group chair and Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. “Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety.”

The conference faced additional pressure after the ACC, Big 12 and SEC remained set on playing in the fall. There was a common belief in the Pac-12, sources said, that after the Big Ten postponed its season, the other Power 5 conferences would eventually do the same. When that didn’t happen and the Big Ten faced significant pressure to change course, and eventually did, the Pac-12 was left to find a way not to be the only Power 5 conference idle in the fall.

After the Big Ten’s announcement last week, Scott quickly pointed to governmental restrictions in California and Oregon that prevented the six Pac-12 schools in those states from practicing. By the end of the day, governors from both states publicly indicated that nothing at the state level would prevent the Pac-12 season from taking place.

See here for the background, and here for the PAC 12’s statement. No one will be allowed at on campus games until at least January. It does indeed seem inevitable that once the Big Ten came back, the PAC 12 would follow. Now even some non-Power Five conferences are also returning, as the Mountain West Conference made a similar announcement. Just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’ll end up playing all the games they intend to play – just ask the University of Houston, which has had four games against four different opponents get cancelled for COVID reasons. And if you think all this is weird and perhaps ill-advised, just wait till basketball starts.

UPDATE: And the MAC is back, too, meaning that all FBS conferences will be playing some form of a football schedule this fall.

Endorsement watch: Three more for the Lege

In numerical order…

Rep. Jon Rosenthal, HD135:

Rep. Jon Rosenthal

As a political novice Jon E. Rosenthal pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 2018 when he knocked off 12-term Republican Rep. Gary Elkins to win the state House District 135 seat in what turned out to be a big year for Democrats.

The 57-year-old mechanical engineer has since proved to be an able legislator, willing to work across party lines to get things done for his district and the state. He also appears refreshingly free of the conflicts of interest that plagued his predecessor’s time in the state house.

We recommend that voters in this west Harris County district give Rosenthal another term.

[…]

Rosenthal was named Freshman of the Year by the Legislative Study Group, a nonpartisan caucus that “focuses on developing mainstream solutions and advancing sound public policy that benefits all Texans.”

He was a co-author of the bipartisan House Bill 2195, which was signed into law and mandates Texas schools to have refined emergency plans.

Rosenthal said he was especially proud of helping open access roads surrounding the construction of the Texas 6 bridge over U.S. 290 in response to businesses worried about losing customers.

Voters were smart to entrust the seat to Rosenthal and they’d be smart to do it again.

Rep. Rosenthal has some serious Scott Hochberg energy around him, by which I mean he’s really smart, understands complicated technical subjects, and is just a genuine, down-to-earth guy. Swapping him in for Gary Elkins was one of the biggest upgrades the Lege has had in awhile.

Rep. Gene Wu, HD137:

Rep. Gene Wu

State Rep. Gene Wu’s understanding that “budget is policy” will come in handy next year as the pandemic’s strain on the economy will demand creative thinking from lawmakers in finding new sources of revenue and to ensure vital services are protected.

“Education cuts are off limits — period,” Wu told the editorial board. “It took us twenty-something years to even get to this point where we can say education is at least somewhat well-funded. We don’t want to go backward.”

The Democrat’s experience last session as a member of the powerful House appropriations committee is just one more reason why voters in Texas House District 137 should send Wu back to Austin for another term.

“I believe in Texas, I believe in this country and I believe the people deserve to be represented by someone who is both knowledgeable and passionate about making people’s lives better,” Wu says.

[…]

Elected in 2012, the 42-year-old former prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office hit the ground running. He has introduced and fought for a variety of bills, many of them focused on battling human trafficking, juvenile and adult criminal justice reform, and protecting children from abuse, including an overhaul of Child Protective Services that received widespread bipartisan support.

Rep. Wu, whom you should be following on Twitter if you’re not already, is going to be a force to be reckoned with when the Dems have a majority in the House, and even more so when they have more than that. I also get the sense that he will run for something bigger at some point. I could picture him as a candidate for District Attorney, Mayor of Houston, a Congressional district if there’s a clear opportunity after redistricting, or even something statewide, as the tide in Texas continues to turn. And if I’m wrong and he’s still in the House ten years from now, he’ll either be Speaker or a senior member of the Speaker’s leadership team. If I’m still writing this thing ten years from now, you can fact-check me on this.

Akilah Bacy, HD138:

Akilah Bacy

Investing in education, making affordable health care available to more Texans and ensuring big businesses pay their fair share are some of the top priorities for Democrat Akilah Bacy, our choice in the race for Texas House District 138.

The district, which includes Spring Branch and Cypress-Fairbanks, has been represented by Republican Dwayne Bohac since 2003, but changing demographics have turned it into a battleground. Bohac, who kept his seat in 2018 by just 47 votes, is not running again.

Bacy, 35, is a graduate of Texas Tech law school and was an assistant district attorney for Harris County before opening her own firm. She grew up in northwest Houston and understands her community’s strengths and its challenges. Although she is a “solid blue Democrat,” Bacy stressed, if elected, she would legislate for all Texans.

“I am running to make sure that I am a representative who speaks for our district, not just the Democrats, not just the independents, not just the Republicans,” she told the editorial board.

Her opponent, Republican Lacey Hull, testified in Austin for parents who opt out their children from mandatory vaccines and a “parental rights” group she co-founded wants to dismantle Child Protective Services. Despite repeated invitations, she did not meet with the editorial board.

My interview with Akilah Bacy from the primary is here. I think she’ll make a fine State Rep. I get that some Republicans think that the Chron isn’t fair to them in the interview/endorsement process, and if you do think that then there’s no point in talking to them. But I have to say, if you’re anti-vaxx and pro-dismantling CPS, you should feel like a pariah.