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April 17th, 2021:

The Texas/Georgia comparison

The main thrust of this story is that the Texas voter suppression bills are not as bad as the law Georgia passed. But as you can see, these laws are still Very Bad.

After major corporations criticized Georgia for adopting voter restrictions in the wake of Democratic wins there, the spotlight is shifting to Texas as Republican lawmakers advance similar legislation.

And just as Georgia Republicans sought to rein in Fulton County — a heavily Democratic county that includes the city of Atlanta — Texas Republicans are targeting large counties run by Democrats with measures that provide possible jail time for local officials who try to expand voting options or who promote voting by mail.

That same push is happening in Arizona and Iowa, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law.

“All of these bills share a common purpose: to threaten the independence of election workers whose main job should be to ensure fair elections free from political or other interference,” Norden said.

The Senate is particularly intent on preventing a repeat of 2020, when the interim Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, promoted novel approaches such as 24-hour voting sites and drive-thru polling places as safe alternatives to indoor voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Democrat-leaning county saw historic turnout that helped Joe Biden come within 5.5 percentage points of the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump.

“Out of thin air they decided on drive-in voting,” charged Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican who runs the Senate and has been a leading voice in urging lawmakers to tighten voting laws in the name of preventing fraud.

Harris County officials, on the other hand, say drive-thru voting was preapproved by administrators at the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“In 2020 we did everything we could within the bounds of the law to ensure that we were going to have a free, a fair, a safe and an accessible election in Harris County,” Hollins said.

House Bill 6, which passed out of a committee and will next go before the full Texas House, would open up election officials to felony charges if they were to solicit a voter to fill out an application for an absentee ballot. Election officials could also face felonies for submitting false information on a provisional ballot, or if they are proven to intentionally have failed to count a valid ballot. Another provision would subject election officials to misdemeanor charges for blocking partisan poll watchers from having access to observe voting.

Legislation approved by the Texas Senate, SB 7, would also make it a crime for election workers to deny a partisan poll watcher the chance to sit or stand near enough to observe voting.

That Senate bill includes a proposal to allow poll watchers to video record voter activity at polling places. Election law expert David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research told CBS News that provision would make Texas elections less secure, not more so.

[…]

The overlapping debates in Georgia and Texas over election legislation has left some confused over what each state is doing.

During a marathon session of the Senate last week, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, went out of his way to explain some of the distinctions. He noted that there is nothing in SB 7 that would make it a crime to give people food and water while they are standing in line to vote, as the Georgia bill does.

“Not in the bill,” Hughes said. “Never going to be in the bill.”

The “no food or water to anyone standing in line” provision in the Georgia law drew a lot of notice for its cruelty and pettiness, but the lack of such a provision in the Texas bills should not distract you from their badness. The main point is to make it harder to vote, and to prevent any future election official – with the threat of a felony, for crying out loud – from taking any action in any situation to make it easier to vote. The poll watchers provision is an open invitation for all kinds of self-appointed election vigilantes to intimidate any voter whose looks they don’t like. And this was all very much done with animus aimed at Harris County, for the sin of being a Democratic stronghold.

I have referred to Daniel Davies’ pithy comment about how “good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them to gain public support” in the past. In a post-Trump world, I’m not sure how accurate that still is, but I do note that the likes of Dan Patrick are still lying their heads off about these bills.

Before explaining how the bill would amend the state election code, Patrick said something that he would repeat during the 35-minute press conference.

“Nothing has changed in the election code (under SB7) regarding early voting. Nothing has changed,” he said.

[…]

If passed, SB 7 would codify Republicans’ objections to drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting into the state election code. To Roxanne Werner, deputy director of communications for Harris County Elections, that’s an appreciable change.

“There are definitely a number of things that would change under SB7, particularly with early voting. Some of the more obvious things are the drive-thru locations and the lack of extended early voting hours,” Werner said. “There are several things in SB 7 that relate to early voting, so I’m surprised to hear (Patrick’s) particular statement.”

For instance, the bill’s text would eliminate 24-hour voting by adding language to the election code that requires early voting to be conducted “for a period of at least nine hours, except that voting may not be conducted earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.”

And it would prohibit drive-thru voting — during the early voting period or on election day — by adding language that says “no voter may cast a vote from inside a motor vehicle.”

Robert Stein, a Rice University political scientist who has worked with and studied Harris County’s election system, said the changes proposed in SB 7 are obvious.

“What do you mean nothing changed?” Stein said, responding to Patrick’s claim. “Then why are you writing SB 7? You’re changing the law so as to prevent someone from doing something they have been doing in the past.”

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, agrees and notes that SB 7 would make Texas one of the most restrictive voting states in the nation. Becker said that SB 7 would “concentrate more voting to a single day” by disincentivizing early voting and mail-in voting.

“I think it’s really hard to characterize SB 7 as not severely limiting early voting given that early voting was allowed to proceed under Texas law in a way that was much more expansive,” Becker said.

All of the changes packaged in SB 7 taken together, the overall effect of the bill, as in bills in other states, is the removal of authority from local election officials, Becker said.

“The fact is that the election code, as every election code does, leaves areas for local government to manage their elections, and there was nothing in the code before that said you couldn’t do drive-thru voting, that said you couldn’t do 24/7 voting, that said you couldn’t do temporary buildings for early voting,” he said. “That has absolutely changed.”

The claim was rated “Pants On Fire”. Even some Republicans have noted the likely effect that these bills would have on early voting and the voters who use it. It’s not that I expect Dan Patrick to be some kind of bastion of truth, but he’s usually smoother than this. Lying in such an obvious fashion like this is defensive in a way Patrick doesn’t often show.

The original story also notes that HB6 has fewer of the restrictive provisions than SB7 does. That’s true, but it’s not particularly relevant. One of these bills will end up in a conference committee, and once there anything can happen. I’d bet on the Senate version being the one that wins out in the end.

One last thing: I’ve mentioned this before as well, but remember that the two omnibus bills are not the only ones out there. There are other bills that do smaller and more targeted things that are getting hearings, like HB895, which would allow election workers to have the discretion to pull voters out of line if their ID and documentation seem questionable, take them aside and make their photo on the spot, make copies of their documentation, and turn that over to the Secretary of State. (No, really.) What could possibly go wrong with that? That hasn’t gotten a vote in committee yet, so it’s not nearly as far along as SB7 or HB6, but we all know that a bill like this could wind up as an amendment to a bill that’s on its way to passage if it doesn’t survive the committee process itself. Until the Lege is out of session, all kinds of badness remains possible.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

The infrastructure bill and Texas flooding

It’s more than just the Ike Dike.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to fortify states against future extreme weather events such as the droughts, floods and hurricanes that caused up to $200 billion in damage in Texas over the past decade — a tally that includes six droughts, five hurricane landfalls and five floods that each left at least $1 billion in damage behind.

Texas was hammered by 67 major weather disasters from 2010 to 2020, more than any other state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-nine of those were billion-dollar disasters — more than double the 25 costly storms the state saw in the decade prior as major weather events have become increasingly common.

The NOAA data does not include the deadly winter storm that killed nearly 200 Texans and caused billions in damage. The state was bracing for more severe weather on Monday with Gov. Greg Abbott ordering rescue boats, helicopters and other resources to stand at the ready for spring storms expected to bring heavy winds and hail.

The storm damage figures are a key piece of the White House’s efforts to sell Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which administration officials stepped up on Monday as they released breakdowns of needs in each state.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the winter storms that left millions of Texans without power for days as an example of the need to make infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe weather.

“We saw what happened in Texas — and that’s an example of a resilience problem,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not a fundamental technology problem. Natural gas plants were part of what failed not because they couldn’t conceivably work, but because there wasn’t weatherization … Things like wind power can operate in sub-zero conditions — I’ve seen it myself in Iowa — but only if you build it in a resilient way, which was not necessarily the case in Texas.”

[…]

In Texas, the Biden administration says the plan could help fix more than 800 bridges and over 19,400 miles of highway in poor condition, expand broadband to the estimated 12 percent of Texans who live in areas without access to it and increase affordable housing options for more than 1.7 million renters in Texas are who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, among other things.

It’s the most detail the administration has offered so far on what Biden’s proposal could send to Texas — and could be as much detail as the White House will offer until the plan becomes law. The administration has said its goal is to establish competitive grant programs to dole out much of the funding, meaning Texas and its cities and counties would have to make their case for projects.

No explicit discussion of the Ike Dike yet, but one has to assume it’s in scope. Preventing a hurricane from wiping out a bunch of refineries is a matter of national security (not to mention environmental protection), and it has always needed to be treated as such. We’re in the middle of a dumb debate about what counts as “infrastructure”, and of course the Republicans, led by Ted “Just get yourself on a plane to Cancun” Cruz, will reject every last penny of this because, well, I have no idea why. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Go back and look at that dollar amount for the past few years’ worth of emergencies in Texas and ask yourself why we wouldn’t want to do something about it right now. I’m sure you can think of a better reason for action than Ted Cruz can for sitting on his thumbs.