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April 9th, 2021:

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

I remain pessimistic about this, but we have no choice but to fight.

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters — like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English — in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

[…]

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail in ballot application — this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

See here for the previous update. I’m going to spare myself a little work by pointing you to some other people who have done the work of highlighting how and why HB6 is just as dangerous as SB7. For example, the latest defensive maneuver by Dan Patrick and now Speaker Dade Phelan is to claim that the critics of these bills just haven’t read them, and to double-dog-dare them to point out any restictionist provisions they allegedly contain. Well, challenge accepted:

I presume she’ll follow with a thread for HB6, but give her a little time. Also, as a historical note, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the Jim Crow laws of the old South never actually said they were intended to keep Black Americans from voting. They were just restrictions on voting that technically affected everyone but which the lawmakers knew and intended would have a much greater effect on Black voters (and which they could ensure via enforcement). Ignorance of history (real or feigned) is no excuse for trying to repeat it.

The real danger in these bills has to do with their elevating poll watchers into some kind of protected group. Why is that a problem? Because poll watchers are unvetted partisans, and in Texas their main role is making voters of color feel harassed:

What could possibly go wrong? This video has already generated some national coverage. One hopes that’s just the beginning.

Finally, while HB6 and SB7 are the big headliner voter-suppression bills, there are a lot of smaller, more targeted voter-suppression bills to watch out for as well:

So now you know. The Texas Signal and Popular Information, which goes deep on Dan Patrick, have more.

Where are we with Houston police reform?

It feels like it’s been on the back burner for awhile, but we’re about to get some action this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston officials are developing a system for residents to report police misconduct online and will announce changes later this month to the city’s body camera policies and Independent Police Oversight Board, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner responded Tuesday to written questions from the Chronicle, more than six months after his police reform task force released a lengthy report with more than 100 recommended changes to the Houston Police Department, including stricter disciplinary rules for officers and an overhaul of the police oversight board. Though the mayor endorsed “almost all” of the task force’s recommendations at the time they were released, he has yet to announce any major policy changes and has enacted only a handful of the smaller proposals that task force members said could be carried out within 90 days.

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

“We haven’t made any meaningful progress since the George Floyd protests, just forget about it,” said Alan M. de León, an organizer with MOVE Texas. “Whether the oversight board, union contract negotiation, or crisis intervention, on no front are we making meaningful progress, and that’s completely disappointing.”

The mayor, who controls the city council agenda and policy changes, said he plans to hire staff within the city’s Office of Inspector General — including a deputy inspector general — as his task force recommended. Turner also said he supports body cameras recommendations, including publicly releasing footage of major incidents within 30 days and installing dashboard cameras in all cop cars, and promised more details later this month.

Those pushing for police reform hope new Police Chief Troy Finner, a native Houstonian who took over Monday, will push reform. Since being appointed in March, Finner has promised to meet with and listen to reformers.

“You could tell he wanted changes to happen,” said Harrison Guy, a police reform task force member who met with Finner twice last year. “I feel like (former chief Art Acevedo) led with a lot of ego, so I felt like he got in the way of a lot of change.”

[…]

Lacy Wolf, president of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said Turner’s administration has not updated task force members on the status of their recommendations. However, Wolf said after seeing bureaucratic barriers that delay reforms, he is more forgiving than some fellow union members.

“But if I put myself back in that place I was at (last summer), I could see why people would be frustrated.”

Bobby Singh, another member of the task force, said he believed Turner viewed policing reform as among the most significant policy issues of his administration.

“This is going to be a legacy line item for him,” he said.

I sure hope so. Someone once said that it’s better to be right slow than to be wrong quick. There are limitations to that, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling like this has taken too damn long, but when all is said and done either Mayor Turner has delivered on this promise or he hasn’t. I believe he can, but we still have to see what changes he makes.

One more thing:

In September, HPD joined Harris County’s cite-and-release program, which allows police officers to issue tickets for various low-level crimes instead of arresting people, fulfilling another task force recommendation.

But despite much fanfare, reform advocates say the city has failed to provide data about whether police are actually using the new rules to arrest fewer residents than before it was enacted. They said city officials told them no information was available.

“It seems like the police department is completely ignoring the mayor’s executive order, and has no intention of complying unless the county collects this data,” said Nicholas Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.

Not to get all “run it like a business” on you, but one thing I have learned in a million years of working for a large company is that if you can’t (or don’t) measure something, you can’t say anything about it. Either you provide an objective metric to show how something is or isn’t changing over time, or it’s all talk. This should be an easy fix, and it’s the only way anyone will know if HPD is doing what it says it’s doing. We have to do better than this.

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

While the East Coast struggles with a fourth wave of rising COVID-19 infections, Texas experts say the state is doing “reasonably well” as case rates stabilize across the state.

Case rates and hospitalizations have plateaued in the region in recent weeks, averaging roughly 3,500 new daily reported cases, the lowest it’s been since early-to-mid September. The decline in hospitalizations has been an even more welcome trend, with fewer than 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID, the lowest it’s been since June.

Medical experts such as Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, suspect the winter freeze, increasing vaccination rates and the prevalence of antibodies in Texas’ population have kept case rates low over the last month.

[…]

“Texas is doing better than most states, which are seeing a pretty sharp rise in the number of daily new cases,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.

The lower rate of infections doesn’t mean that Texans can let their guard down, though. Fewer than 37 percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just over 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“You have to plateau before you rise, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Neuman said.

The flat line of case rates starts with a sharp drop-off in testing. According to data from the Department of State Health Services, results from PCR testing dropped sharply during the winter freeze in February, and have not rebounded. As of April, Texas is testing at just half the rate it was before the state iced over.

While the number of daily tests has declined heavily, so too has the positive test rate. It’s now under 5 percent, and the second-lowest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Even with the reduced number of tests being conducted, fewer people are testing positive for COVID.

The low number of tests mean there could be a lag before a potential surge, Neuman said.

In Houston, medical experts are cautiously optimistic there won’t be a rise.

Usually, case rates spike first, followed by hospitalizations the week after and ventilator demand and deaths after that. So far, all three have stayed low in Houston, Vartian said.

The freeze was basically a one-week lockdown in the middle of February, and that no doubt helped keep infections down. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, but at least in my little part of the world people are still masking up, despite the Governor’s order. I won’t extrapolate from such a limited data point, but I feel hopeful that at least in the big cities people are still inclined to be cautious.

And I take heart at the progress in getting shots into arms. The Astros are getting their shots. The Rockets are getting their shots. Judge Hidalgo has gotten her first shot. People are celebrating the ways that their lives have been improved by getting vaccinated. (Can confirm, by the way.) I’m hopeful. We still have to be careful, but I can see the road ahead, and it’s going someplace good.

Paxton sued by Twitter users

Maybe he should just get offline.

Best mugshot ever

A group of Texans and a free speech advocacy group are suing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in federal court, accusing him of unconstitutionally blocking nine people on Twitter for criticizing him or his policies on the platform.

The lawsuit also argues that being blocked from viewing Paxton’s tweets is a violation of the First Amendment because it limits the right of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by Paxton. The account mentioned in the lawsuit, @KenPaxtonTX, is a separate account from the official account of the Office of the Texas Attorney General.

But Paxton uses the account to make official announcements, comment on local issues and defend his policies, according to the lawsuit.

“This information is relevant not just to the residents of Texas but to Americans more generally, given the national scope of many of the matters the Texas Attorney General’s office tackles,” the lawsuit says. “Those who are blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account are impeded in their ability to learn information that is shared only through that account.”

[…]

According to the Texas lawsuit against Paxton, one plaintiff realized they were blocked after replying to a tweet from Paxton in January about a MAGA rally with “Enjoy the fresh air before you go to prison, Kenneth!” Another Twitter user learned they were blocked after replying with “wear a mask nerd” to Paxton’s tweet with a photo of him and another person at the Conservative Political Action Conference without masks, the lawsuit states.

Paxton’s action of blocking people who criticize him appears to be widespread, and he has “blocked many other individuals from the @KenPaxtonTX account based on their viewpoints,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks a federal court to order that Paxton’s action of blocking users based on their critical tweets violates the First Amendment. The plaintiffs are also asking for Paxton to unblock them and everyone else who was blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account “based on their viewpoints.”

As the story notes, there was a successful lawsuit against Donald Trump for the same thing – a federal appeals court ruled that Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked Twitter followers, on his personal account that was also used to make official announcements. The suit was ultimately mooted by SCOTUS following Trump’s electoral loss and banishment from Twitter, so the issue isn’t fully resolved. It sure sounds to me like these plaintiffs have a strong case, though. Paxton is also involved in a separate fight with Twitter, because that’s the world we live in these days. I will of course keep an eye on this. The Chron has more.