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October 20th, 2021:

Congressional map passes

And so the work is done. The lawyers are warming up their engines as we speak.

The Texas Legislature has signed off on new congressional districts that shore up the GOP’s dominance and yield little ground to the people of color who have driven the state’s growth.

Wrapping up their work to build a decade of population change into new political maps, the Senate and House on Monday each approved a negotiated, final version of the congressional map, which will go to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature. In complete control of the redistricting process, Republicans designed a map that will tighten their hold on diversifying parts of the state where the party’s grip on power was waning and lock in the GOP’s majority in the 38-seat delegation for the U.S. House.

The map also incorporates two additional House seats the state gained, the most of any state in this year’s reapportionment. Though Texas received those districts because of explosive population growth — 95% of it attributable to people of color — Republicans opted to give white voters effective control of both, which were drawn in the Houston and Austin areas.

The Senate approved the map on a 18-13 vote. The House followed with an 84-59 vote.

Previewing the legal battles that will follow, Democrats decried the lack of adequate representation for voters of color, shunning a map that diminishes their voices instead of reflecting the state’s changing racial and demographic makeup. Half of the 4 million residents the state gained in the past 10 years were Hispanic.

“What we’re doing in passing this congressional map is a disservice to the people of Texas. What we’re doing is hurtful to millions of Texans — it’s shameful,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, the Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told his colleagues before the vote. “I’d love to be able to say it is a stain on the legacy of voting rights, but that seems to be the playbook decade after decade after decade in this state.”

The Republicans who led the redistricting process offered little defense of the maps from the Senate and House floors before the final votes. They have previously said the congressional map was drafted based on a series of “priorities,” including partisanship and keeping communities of interest together. They’ve also argued the map complies with federal laws protecting voters of color from discrimination, though they have declined to offer specifics about their legal analysis.

[…]

Republicans placed a new district, the 37th Congressional District, in the Austin area to capture Democratic-leaning voters that were endangering the prospects of Republican incumbents in nearby districts. They also drew in a new district, the 38th Congressional District, that would offer Republicans safe territory in the Houston area. In both districts, white residents would make up more than 60% of eligible voters.

During the Senate’s first debate over the map earlier this month, state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who led the Senate’s redistricting process, told her colleagues her team had seen “no strong basis in evidence” to create a new opportunity district for voters of color.

Like I said, the lawyers are ready. You can see the map here. As the story notes, one significant change was to undo the scrambling of CDs 09, 18, and 29 that left Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green living in different districts. They got what they asked for, and in the process they put most of my neighborhood, including myself, back into CD18. You should check and see where you wound up.

I don’t have much more to say about the maps at this time. I’ll keep a lookout for electoral data when it becomes readily available, and of course I’ll keep an eye on the inevitable litigation. In the meantime, the big question is are we finally done with all this crap?

Early Tuesday morning, both the House and Senate adjourned the third special session of the year, capping a grueling stretch that featured a weekslong Democratic walkout over the GOP’s priority elections bill and a series of proposals to build on what was already a triumphant regular session for conservatives.

But the latest special session ended without lawmakers passing two of Abbott’s priorities — legislation to increase an illegal voting penalty and to ban vaccine mandates by any entity in Texas.

In each of the previous three legislative sessions this year, Abbott was firm that he would keep calling lawmakers back to Austin until they addressed the legislation he required of them — most notably the GOP elections bill and changes to the bail system targeting violent offenders. He placed a bill targeting transgender student athletes on each of the three special session agendas, until it was finally passed in the most recent session.

On Monday night, as the chambers were nearing sine die, Abbott declined to say whether a fourth special session would be necessary. He also did not say anything Tuesday about the possibility, but he did issue a statement applauding lawmakers for their work in the third special session that suggested he was satisfied with what they had gotten done.

“These dynamic achievements would not have been possible without the men and women of the Texas House and Senate who worked tirelessly through the third Special Session to ensure these priorities made it across the finish line,” he said. “Because of their efforts, the future of Texas is stronger, safer, and freer.”

But the unfinished bills are fraught with intraparty politics, and could expose Abbott to attacks from his right, which he has been increasingly attuned to as he prepares for his 2022 reelection campaign.

Some lawmakers expect there to be a fourth special session, but not in the short term — and maybe closer to primary season.

May the Lord have mercy on us all. At least we know that the remaining items Abbott might want are more contentious among Republicans, and that may act as a brake on them. But man, do I never want to have to depend on Republicans doing the thing that I want them to do, because that trick never works. The Chron has more.

The Trib on Collier/Dowd

Good story.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier is willing to bet Texas voters know his name.

In fact, he’s confident that when he last ran for lieutenant governor three years ago and came within 5 percentage points of winning, it was because most of the 3.8 million Texans who checked his name were voting in support of his candidacy, and not just against Republican incumbent Dan Patrick during a watershed year for Democrats.

“They’ll only do that if they like the candidate they’re voting for,” Collier said. “Yes, a lot of people voted against Dan Patrick but they’re not going to vote for just anybody. They looked and they [said], ‘I don’t like Dan Patrick, he’s bad for the state. I like Mike Collier, I think he’s good for the state.’”

His evidence? In two-thirds of Texas counties, he outperformed Beto O’Rourke, who led the top of the ticket in 2018 against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and sparked a flurry of excitement among Democrats that year.

But several other statewide Democratic candidates with little name recognition and no real campaign funding also outperformed expectations against their GOP counterparts that year, largely on O’Rourke’s coattails. Collier wasn’t even the party’s second-highest vote-getter statewide. That was Justin Nelson, who came within 295,000 votes of unseating Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Collier, a 60-year-old accountant and auditor from the Houston area, will have his chance to prove his bonafides next year after announcing earlier this month that he is officially running for a rematch against Patrick.

“I came very close to beating Dan Patrick. I came within 4.8 points,” he said. “And I decided that looking at the numbers, that I can beat him.”

But first, he’ll have to get past Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist turned Democrat, and any other candidate that joins the race in a Democratic primary. Collier said he looks forward to the contest.

“My strategy is to keep talking to every Texan and have a much better team, much more money and a network of surrogates and friends and volunteers and champions and validators all over the state,” he said. “I think I win the primary.”

The rest of the story is a nice profile of Collier, hitting on some of the things he did in his 2018 campaign, his case against Dan Patrick, and how he is differentiating himself from Matthew Dowd. If you didn’t know anything about him to begin with, it’s a good introduction and I think it makes him look very presentable. My hope is that there are stories like this to be done around the state, in newspapers and for local TV stations. They can be about Dowd too – really, I hope there are stories about both of them. But to whatever extent that happens, both Collier and Dowd are going to have to show they can raise enough money to fund a robust statewide campaign, and get their names in front of as many voters as they can. There’s a quote in the story from a poli sci professor about how Collier’s vote total in 2018 was more a reflection of what people thought of Dan Patrick than of Mike Collier, and I agree with it. The next step is to be more than “not Dan Patrick”, and that’s going to take some money. I very much hope the January finance reports reflect that.

UPDATE: Almost as if on cue, here’s the Chron’s Erica Greider writing about the Dowd/Collier race from a more Dowd perspective.

2021 Day One EV report: Everyone likes voting by mail

Lots of mail ballots have been cast so far. Much more than any other kind.

Early voting began Monday for a handful of area school board and municipal races, state constitutional amendments and hundreds of millions of dollars in school district and municipal utility bonds.

Mail-in voting skyrocketed in Harris County with elections officials tallying 29,005 ballots on Monday compared to 5,335 on the first day of the 2017 election—the last comparable election.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said county’s mailing of ballot applications to eligible voters over 65 contributed to the increase, a 444 percent jump compared to 2017— the last comparable election.

According to elections officials, 2,643 ballots were cast Monday in early in-person voting. By comparison, Monday’s total is three percent lower than the total first day of in-person voting in 2017.

Longoria said the decrease can be attributed to the items Houston had to vote on in that election which pulled more voters to the polls.

“From my perspective, basically, the same number of voters without the pull of city of Houston is a pretty good start,” Longoria said.

I’ve got the Day One totals here. I’m probably just going to do a couple of these updates, since the day to day activity is likely to be minimal, but I can tell you that 29K mail ballots is more than double the total number received in 2017, and almost as many as were cast in the much-higher turnout 2015 election. Some of this is the sending of ballot applications to all of the over-65 folks in the county (last time we’ll be doing that, thank you Greg Abbott very much) and some of it is just that more people have been voting by mail in recent elections and they like it. There will come a day, I just know it, when we will look back at what the Legislature did to voting rights this year, and wonder what the hell they were thinking.

As far as final turnout goes, we look back to 2017, the last (and so far only other) election that did not have city races. Final turnout was about 101K, with about 149K total votes in Harris County. There were some city bond issues on the ballot that year, which probably drove a bit of turnout. I’d put the early over/under line at that level, but I won’t be surprised if we fail to get there.

This is also our first election with new voting machines:

This election is the debut of new paper ballot machines that the county bought , Longoria added.

“The machines are running well,” she said. “What we are hearing is voters appreciate being able to see the result of how they voted and then to turn that vote into the ballot box.”

Yes, this expectedly low-turnout election is the shakedown cruise for the new machines. I’ll post my review of them when I go vote later in the week, but if you’ve already done your thing please let us know what you think of them.

One more thing, because this is cool:

You can see that on the last page of the EV report I linked to above. You want to know where the actual voters are coming from, and at what time of day, this is for you. I like it.

Endorsement watch: Wrapping it up

The Chron counsels a Yes vote on Prop 2.

For 30 years, the Texas Constitution has allowed the Legislature to authorize cities to issue bonds to raise needed funds to more quickly build roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure. On Nov. 2, and in early voting that begins Monday, voters can give counties that same authority.

We recommend that they do so by voting yes on Prop 2.

Counties, just like cities, need all the tools available to keep up with the basic needs of residents. In places such as Harris County, with more than 2 million residents living in unincorporated areas, this is not just a good idea but an urgent necessity.

Issuing bonds means taking out large loans secured by promises to use a portion of future property tax revenues to repay them — usually at low interest rates and over decades. Doing so means residents’ daily lives are improved right away rather than years later.

This is especially important here. By 2050, the population of the Houston area is expected to double. Just imagine how much more time you will spend staring at the rear fender of the car in front of you on the 610 Loop in 30 years if the county doesn’t continue investing in mobility solutions, from mass transit to smarter highways, better roads and safer and more plentiful bike lanes.

Harris County has dozens of infrastructure projects on its wishlist, from highway to transit to bike trails. Building those projects would increase nearby property values and add new properties to the tax rolls as well. That new revenue would repay the bonds and ease pressure to raise tax rates.

The Chron had earlier recommended a No vote on Prop 3, and unless they have some late endorsements sitting around, that’s all we’ll get from them on the Constitutional amendments. As noted before, the guidance from Progress Texas is a No on 3, 4, and 5, and a Yes on the others. The H-Town Progressive podcast differs slightly, recommending a slightly qualified Yes on 4 but concurring with the rest. I’m leaning in that direction but could still be persuaded otherwise on Prop 4. The Austin Chronicle is a Yes only on 1, 2, 6, and a No on the rest.

Finally, for those of you in The Woodlands, the Chron says incorporate yourselves by other means than the proposition on your ballot.

Nearly 50 years after George Mitchell charted the master-planned community that is The Woodlands, an inevitable fight has broken out beneath the tall trees 28 miles north of Houston over how to best protect the founder’s vision of suburban utopia.

In a 5-2 vote Aug.13, the board of Texas’ only “township” decided to put incorporation on this fall’s ballot. If passed, The Woodlands — beloved by residents for low taxes, low crime, green parks and good schools — would become an incorporated city.

Supporters say it’s time for The Woodlands’ residents to fully govern themselves, electing a mayor and a city council who can draft a charter, pass noise ordinances and zoning rules, and establish a dedicated police force so the community doesn’t have to depend on Harris and Montgomery counties for law enforcement.

Township board chair Gordy Bunch told us The Woodlands, because it’s not a city, is missing out on as much as $30 million in COVID relief funds — and that Montgomery County hasn’t properly shared.

Opponents ask “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The unusual governance system is central to what makes The Woodlands appealing to families and businesses.

[…]

It’s unclear to residents we talked to, and to us, how daily life in The Woodlands would really change with incorporation — and more importantly, if it would improve. The township — whose board is elected, albeit at-large, without distinct districts — already uses local tax revenue to provide some services and contracts out others, such as trash pickup.

But running a full-fledged city — including having a direct role in roads and other infrastructure and establishing a police department from scratch — is different. The question isn’t whether costs will go up for residents but how much.

No one we talked to could say for sure. And that’s a problem. Township board members say they have a plan to keep the tax rate consistent over the first few years but their critics say they’ve seriously underestimated the startup costs of incorporation.

Eventually, incorporation may well be the best option for this growing community whose need for autonomy, efficiency, transparency and influence over its own destiny will only increase.

But the current effort feels hasty. While incorporation has been the topic of conversations and public meetings and research for years, the decision isn’t something that should be rushed through in a low-turnout election in a year where distractions, including the pandemic, abound.

I have no skin in this game. Mostly, I hope the Woodlands does whatever will make them the biggest possible pain in the ass for Montgomery County’s government, because that would be hilarious. Whether this would be the best way to go about doing that or not, I have no idea.