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April 14th, 2021:

The propagandist’s advantage

Discouraging, but we have to address the world as it is.

Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas was making a point.

The number of prosecutions for voter fraud cases in the state of Texas is low. In its 15 years of existence, the Texas Attorney General’s Election Integrity Unit has prosecuted a few dozen cases in which offenders received jail time, but none of them involving widespread fraud.

And though his colleague, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was talking about another voter fraud indictment in his home county of Gregg, that was one case in one county in a state of 254 counties and 30 million people.

But Hughes had a ready retort: “How much fraud is OK?”

“How much fraud is OK?” he repeated. “I want to know.”

Game, set and match. Hughes pushed forward with his bill, an omnibus piece of legislation he says will reduce voter fraud and opponents say will suppress the votes of marginalized communities.

The argument is a familiar one to followers of voting legislation over the last two decades, as Republicans in statehouses across the country have moved to stiffen voting regulations, arguing that such changes are necessary to combat voter fraud.

And it’s an effective point. It puts the proposal’s opponents in the unenviable position of having to defend the low level of fraud cases that happen as a normal part of any large election system. Who wants to be pro-fraud?

“The difficulty for Democrats is that it’s kind of hard to sell the argument that you won’t eliminate 100% of fraud but that even a small number of cases isn’t a big deal,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who researched arguments over voter fraud bills. “For the public, even one case can legitimize the view that fraud is rampant and impacts the outcome.”

“In their over 20 years of this being an issue… Democrats have never come up with an effective counterargument,” Miller said.

That’s because Americans by and large do not trust the government’s handling of elections and perceive that there’s more voter fraud than actually exists, he said.

[…]

But Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said the idea should be flipped on its head.

“Just because occasionally there’s a bank error doesn’t mean we should shut down ATMs. We have to make it better,” Rottinghaus said.

To do that, lawmakers would dedicate more resources and people to elections, like some of the state’s major counties have done. Instead those counties, Harris in particular, are being attacked for the new voting options they offered.

There are a lot of ways to respond to grandiose but wrong claims that “any amount of fraud is too much”. Professor Rottinghaus is on the right track, and one can expand that example in a limitless number of ways. Credit card fraud should never happen, but the fact that it does happen doesn’t mean we should all shred our Visas and MasterCards. Amazon screws up deliveries all the time. To put this in my professional bailiwick, computer viruses happen all the time, but no one is arguing that we should shut down the Internet until we can ensure they never happen again.

Indeed [puts on cybersecurity hat], the assumption in the enterprise IT world is that it’s a matter of when your network is successfully attacked, not if. While there are all kinds of protections and controls in place – which still have to balance out the need of your staff to actually do their business; again, no one is shutting down the Internet any time soon – there’s a premium on detecting viruses and other bad things when they happen, and quickly limiting the damage that they do. A stance that only having zero cyber-incidents is acceptable is not only completely unrealistic, it’s damaging and unproductive. There’s far more bang for the buck by assuming that some bad things are going to happen but we’ll catch them when they do because we’ve invested in that.

There’s also the fact that what the Hughes bill and the House bill aim to stop are things that carry little to no risk for election security. Limiting mail drop boxes and curtailing early voting hours and restricting the number of voting machines at voting locations will do a good job of making it harder to vote, but can’t and won’t do anything to make voting more secure because none of those things were insecure to begin with. Most of the actual “fraudulent” activity that the state has attempted to prosecute in recent years has involved the kind of behavior that could just as easily be classified as inadvertent mistakes, the equivalent of overstaying at a parking meter by five minutes, and most of what these bills aim to criminalize further is more of the same. Even if one were to accept that there’s a huge electoral crime wave going on, this would be like the police cracking down on jaywalkers.

Enhancing penalties for existing offenses, even the serious ones, is unlikely to matter as well. From a criminal justice perspective, our “tuff-on-crime” spree from the 80s and 90s has left us today with thousands of people serving decades-long sentences for pot possession and shoplifting. Our profligate use of the death penalty did precious little to curtail the murder rate back then, too. The main effect, then and now, is to more harshly punish a lot of people who weren’t doing anything we needed to be afraid of.

Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, this entire premise about “fraud” is built on a foundation of lies. None of it is true. Our elections are quite reasonably secure, and the most fanatical “fraud” hunters on the planet cannot provide any shred of evidence to the contrary. Their arguments largely boil down to “Do we need for someone to find proof of Bigfoot’s existence before we pass all these anti-Bigfoot laws that everyone knows will have negative effects on our political opponents?” The rationale falls apart under the barest of scrutiny, but someone once said that if you’re explaining you’re losing, so there’s that.

The Republicans want to pass these laws because they have the power to pass them, and because they think passing them will be to their benefit. The rest is just pretext. The fact that the likes of Dan Patrick freak out whenever they get any pushback tells you more than anything I could ever say.

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

First look at the 2021 hurricane season

Yeah, it’s getting to be that time of year. From Space City Weather:

Good morning. The most reputable hurricane season forecasting service, led by Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University, has released its first outlook for the 2021 Atlantic season. The forecast calls for above normal activity (see table below) with 17 named storms instead of the more typical 12; eight hurricanes instead of six; and about 50 percent total more activity, in terms of the duration and intensity of tropical systems, as measured by accumulated cyclone energy.

This outlook is consistent with other predictions, already released, in calling for a busier than normal season. What I like about Klotzbach’s forecast is that he’s very clear about his methodology—using a combination of statistical modeling, and historical correlations between Spring-time weather conditions and hurricane activity later in the year. Klotzbach also has a reasonable track record.

With that said, seasonal hurricane forecasts are far from perfect. I think, generally, we can expect a busier Atlantic season, but we’re almost certainly not going to see a brute of a year like 2020. Moreover, the chance of the Houston area being directly affected by serious tropical weather (in terms of floods, winds, or surge) is pretty low. Historically, the region only sees a significant storm about once a decade or so. Therefore, while it certainly is time to begin planning for the 2021 Atlantic season, I very much do not want you to start worrying or obsessing about it. Matt and I will, of course, be here every step of the way, and we’ll be releasing a new app before the June 1 beginning of the season to keep you informed.

“Not as bad as 2020” is a low bar to clear, but we have to start somewhere. There will be other forecasts, and that will give us a fuller picture of what is expected. Also of importance is predicting the development and path and severity of hurricanes and big rainstorms, and towards that end the NOAA rolled out a new model last month.

“You just get a better forecast,” said Lance Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office. “The day-to-day reliability of the model forecasting would be better, though it would probably be more noticeable in something like an extreme rainfall threat.”

The upgrades include a variety of changes. For one, the Global Forecast System (an atmospheric model) can now interact with a global wave model. Running these models together will extend wave forecasts to 16 days, up from the current 10-day forecasts. This is particularly helpful to mariners planning long-distance voyages, Wood said.

The upgrades also provide a more detailed look at the atmosphere at various vertical levels. Previously, the model showed data at 64 different levels in the atmosphere. Now, it will show 127 different levels. This type of information can help provide more accurate cloud coverage forecasts — a weather outlook that’s often requested by general aviation pilots who want to know how thick the clouds will be.

And finally, the new-and-improved Global Forecast System will be able to pull more data from satellites that provide weather observations and planes that measure wind, temperature and moisture, Wood said.

In other words, we’ll have more time in advance of a hurricane to know that it’s coming and to prep for it. We need all the help we can get with that. Stay alert, be prepared, don’t panic, and we’ll get through this.

Watson cases consolidated

All in one court now, for your convenience.

All 22 sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been consolidated to one Harris County court.

Both legal parties agreed on Friday that State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier should handle the cases until the time of trial. Any trial would then be returned to the originally assigned courtroom.

Court documents show that the cases have been consolidated. Collier said Friday she expected a panel of judges to meet and officially OK the agreement at an unspecified date.

The decision is primarily a matter of convenience for the judges, Watson’s attorneys and the lawyers of the 22 women bringing litigation. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, and Tony Buzbee, representing the women, said that it would be easier to exchange evidence in one courtroom instead of several.

See here for the previous update. I don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this is a normal thing, consolidating lawsuits like this. As a blogger who follows various legal cases, I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to tell from a bland news story whether a particular court action has to do with this lawsuit or that one or the other one over there. I appreciate the simplification.

In semi-related Watson news, don’t do this.

Football writer Aaron Wilson is no longer with the Houston Chronicle after he went on a Boston sports radio show and compared the women suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, multiple sources told Defector on Friday.

The radio appearance was on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on March 19. During the appearance, Wilson called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing.” At one point during the conversation, when talking about the Watson case, he said, “In his case, you know, it’s kind of you don’t negotiate with terrorists. People are demanding money, they’re asking for money. It kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. You’re talking about more and more funds, I’m not going to say how much it got to, but my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”

Wilson has since issued an apology, but yeah. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, come back from that. We all have our thoughts and often conflicting feelings about the accusations against Deshaun Watson, but outside of the accusers and Watson themselves, no one knows anything. We should take the accusers seriously, and we should give Watson the chance to defend himself, and we should not jump to dumb and ill-informed conclusions.

UPDATE: The remaining cases against Watson have been refiled to include the plaintiffs’ names, minus one who chose to drop out.