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Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

Fifth Circuit asks SCOTx for help on some SB1 issues

The Twitter summary:

To recap the history here, back in September a group of plaintiffs including Isabel Longoria filed one of many lawsuits against SB1, the voter suppression law from the special sessions. In December, a motion was filed to get a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. A federal district judge granted the motion, which would have applied to the primaries, and I’m willing to bet would have helped ease the confusion that led to all of those rejected mail ballots, but the Fifth Circuit, as is their wont, put a hold on the injunction.

It’s not clear to me where things are procedurally with this litigation – and remember, there are a bunch of other cases as well – but in this matter the Fifth Circuit wanted to get some clarity on state law before doing whatever it has on its docket to do. Let me just show you what that second linked file says:

The case underlying these certified questions is a pre-enforcement challenge to two recently enacted provisions of the Texas Election Code: section 276.016(a) (the anti-solicitation provision) and section 31.129 (the civil-liability provision) as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. The anti-solicitation provision makes it unlawful for a “public official or election official” while “acting in an official capacity” to “knowingly . . . solicit[] the submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application.” The civil-liability provision creates a civil penalty for an election official who is employed by or an office of the state and who violates a provision of the election code.

Isabel Longoria, the Harris County Elections Administrator, and Cathy Morgan, a Volunteer Deputy Registrar serving in Williams and Travis counties, sued the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, to enjoin enforcement of the civil liability provision, as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. And in response to the recent Court of Criminal Appeals case holding that the Texas Attorney General has no independent authority to prosecute criminal offenses created in the Election Code, they also sued the Harris, Travis, and Williamson County district attorneys to challenge the criminal penalties imposed by the anti-solicitation provision. The plaintiffs argue that the provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the risk of criminal and civil liability chills speech that “encourage[s] voters to lawfully vote by mail.

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, enjoining the defendants from enforcing and prosecuting under the provisions. Paxton and one of the district attorneys (Shawn Dick of Williamson County) appealed. Because the Harris and Travis County district attorneys did not appeal, only Longoria’s challenge to the civil penalty permitted by the civil-liability provision and the Volunteer Deputy Registrar’s challenge to the criminal liability imposed under the anti-solicitation provision were at issue in the appeal.

On its own motion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has certified the following questions to the Court:

(1) Whether Volunteer Deputy Registrars are “public officials” under the Texas Election Code;

(2) Whether the speech Plaintiffs allege that they intend to engage in constitutes “solicitation” within the context of Texas Election Code § 276.016(a)(1). For example, is the definition narrowly limited to seeking application for violative mail-in ballots? Is it limited to demanding submission of an application for mail-in ballots (whether or not the applicant qualifies) or does it broadly cover the kinds of comments Plaintiffs stated that they wish to make: telling those who are elderly or disabled, for example, that they have the opportunity to apply for mail-in ballots?; and

(3) Whether the Texas Attorney General is a proper official to enforce Texas Election Code § 31.129.

The Court accepted the certified questions and set oral argument for May 11, 2022.

You now know everything I know. Let’s see what happens in May.

Of course the Fifth Circuit put a hold on the SB1 injunction

There is nothing more reliable in this world than the Fifth Circuit giving Republicans everything they ask for.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has put a temporary hold on a preliminary injunction that had blocked enforcement of a rule that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots, according to Harris County officials.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez last week halted enforcement of a provision of Senate Bill 1 that made it a crime for election officials to solicit mail-in ballots. The judge said the law likely violates the First Amendment.

[…]

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on Thursday expressed disappointment in the decision by the 5th Circuit, which has blocked a number of court challenges to conservative policies.

“I am disappointed that the Fifth Circuit has undone the preliminary injunction that protected Administrator (Isabel) Longoria’s First Amendment rights,” Menefee said in a written statement. “As the district court already determined, this law is unconstitutional and prevents election officials from encouraging people to vote by mail, including our seniors, our neighbors with disabilities, and our active-duty service members. One thing that’s clear from the high number of mail-in ballot applications being rejected is that our election officials should be empowered to explain the process and encourage folks to apply to vote by mail if eligible. Today’s decision allows the threat of criminal prosecution to loom over election officials trying to help voters.”

See here and here for the background. This court is a sham and a disgrace, and the only way forward is to pack it with judges that will actually apply the law. Don’t ask me when that is likely to happen.

Because I have nothing better to say, here are a couple of tweets from Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee:

Good luck with that. I wish I felt more optimistic, but it’s not like the Fifth Circuit will care.

Injunction granted in lawsuit over criminal penalties for election officials who encourage voting by mail

That’s a somewhat complicated headline for this.

A new Texas law that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots likely violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

Following a testy three-hour hearing earlier in the day, Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the rule against Harris County’s election administrator until the rest of a lawsuit plays out. Although the scope of Rodriguez’s preliminary injunction is limited, the judge dealt the first legal blow to new elections restrictions and voting changes Republican lawmakers enacted last year.

The injunction applies to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and local county prosecutors in Harris, Travis and Williamson counties.

The state is expected to quickly appeal the ruling. The lawsuit was brought by Harris County election administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who is appointed to help register voters in Travis and Williamson counties.

Feb. 18 is the last day for counties to receive applications for mail-in ballots for the March 1 primary.

Rodriguez previewed his order throughout a Friday morning hearing during which he repeatedly pressed the state’s attorneys — with increasing exasperation — to fill in what he cataloged as ambiguities in the new law. The challenged provision makes it a state jail felony for election officials to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it.

Rodriguez took particular issue with the lack of a clear definition for what constitutes soliciting when talking to voters, even those 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail under the state’s strict rules.

“It has a chilling effect,” Rodriguez said while questioning a state attorney Friday morning. “They don’t know when they’re going to run afoul of this vague [law].”

His comments followed testimony from Longoria and Morgan, who said they feared the civil and criminal penalties that could come from violating the broad prohibition.

Longoria said her office was now taking a “passive” approach to voter outreach in regard to voting by mail, with staffers “gingerly” weighing their words while answering voters’ questions about their options.

“When it comes to voting by mail, I have to be very careful with my words,” Longoria said from the witness stand. “I stop mid-sentence sometimes at town halls. … I’m tentative to overreach at the moment.”

Morgan testified that she was concerned the law applied even to volunteers like her, given that her role is formally certified by county election offices. She offered examples of voters she no longer felt she could help navigate the vote-by-mail process. That included an 88-year-old voter whom Morgan would typically call at the start of every year to remind her that she has to reapply for mail-in ballots.

State attorneys said that the law did not apply to volunteers like Morgan and argued the government can prohibit interactions between local election officials and voters without running afoul of the First Amendment.

[…]

And even the state’s witness — Keith Ingram, the Texas secretary of state’s director of elections — indicated the threat of prosecution loomed over election officials. While Ingram was on the stand, Rodriguez presented him with hypothetical interactions between Longoria and voters, asking if she could recommend voting by mail to someone who appeared to qualify.

“I would be very careful about that,” Ingram responded. “You wouldn’t want to recommend” voting by mail as an option “because you’d be worried about prosecution,” he said.

Throughout the hearing, Rodriguez also pressed for the reasoning behind the anti-solicitation provision, interrupting the state’s questioning of Ingram in search of an answer. Ingram said he didn’t know the purpose of the provision.

Eventually, Will Thompson of the Texas attorney general’s office told Rodriguez that the provision was meant to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail, indicating the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

“We’re not taking the position that the Legislature is opposed to voting by mail,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean the Legislature wants resources to be used toward nudging people toward voting by mail.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. The Statesman has a couple of key bits from the ruling:

In his order, Rodriguez rejected Paxton’s argument that the solicitation ban targets government speech, which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because the state is allowed to regulate how public employees perform official duties.

But, the judge noted, Longoria and Morgan do not work for the state. Longoria is employed by Harris County, and Morgan is a volunteer registrar.

Rodriguez also rejected Paxton’s claim that granting the injunction would interfere with the orderly operation of Texas elections. The judge said his order does not affect any voting procedures, change the vote-by-mail process or affect voting deadlines or eligibility.

“Nor does it require that election officials start soliciting applications to vote by mail — it simply prevents the imposition of criminal and civil penalties against officials for encouraging people to vote by mail if they are eligible to do so,” Rodriguez wrote.

None of that will stop the Fifth Circuit from doing what the Republicans ask them to do since that’s what they believe their job is, but at least he tried. For anyone who thinks that it’s hysterical to imagine Longoria or Morgan being prosecuted for these actions, Rob Icsezen and Dana DeBeauvoir would like to have a word with you.

Reporter Edward McKinley and plaintiffs’ attorney Sean Morales-Doyle have good Twitter threads with more details, so go check them out. The main argument was that this provision of SB1 criminalizes speech on the basis of its content and the viewpoint expressed, since Longoria could talk all day about not voting by mail but risked arrest if she said the opposite. This is a preliminary injunction, and whether it survives the Fifth Circuit or not there will be a trial on the merits later this year, and you can bank on it going all the way to SCOTUS. The Supreme Court is occasionally solicitous of the First Amendment, if it approves of the speech in question, so who knows what they might do. In the meantime, we have a small victory, for now, against SB1. There will be a lot more litigation over the rest of that law to come. The Chron has more.

“Unprecedented” meddling in the Census

They weren’t subtle about it.

A newly disclosed memorandum citing “unprecedented” meddling by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and circulated among top Census Bureau officials indicates how strongly they sought to resist efforts by the administration to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.

The document was shared among three senior executives including Ron S. Jarmin, a deputy director and the agency’s day-to-day head. It was written in September 2020 as the administration was pressing the bureau to end the count weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, he could receive population estimates used to reapportion the House of Representatives before leaving office.

The memo laid out a string of instances of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, who was then the secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The issues involved crucial technical aspects of the count, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly and political pressure on a crash program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of those issues directly affected the population estimates used for reapportionment. In particular, the administration was adamant that — for the first time ever — the bureau separately tally the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Mr. Trump had ordered the tally in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from House reapportionment population estimates.

The census officials’ memorandum pushed back especially forcefully, complaining of “direct engagement” by political appointees with the methods that experts were using to find and count unauthorized noncitizens.

“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of the administration’s policy,” the memo stated, “the Census Bureau views the development of the methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

[…]

Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public-affairs scholar who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the careful bureaucratic language belied an extraordinary pushback against political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to run the technical matters in the way we think we ought to.’”

The officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to shield the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census gets underway. “I’m very worried about that,” he said.

See here and here for some background; I wrote about Census-related topics and shenanigans a lot while it was happening. We got lucky this time around, but there’s no reason to believe our luck will hold. My advice would be to put some criminal penalties in for the various forms of interference and intimidation that the Trump thugs used, and don’t require proof of intent for the crime to have occurred. My advice would also be to prioritize democracy and good governance over ant-democratic Senate trivia, but what do I know? Texas Public Radio and Mother Jones have more.

Preliminary injunction sought against mail ballot restrictions

Of interest.

Today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office moved for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton, their challenge to the provision in Texas’s restrictive voting law (S.B. 1) that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The Brennan Center, Weil, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office are seeking the injunction on behalf of Isabel Longoria, the Election Administrator for Harris County, Texas; and the Brennan Center and Weil are also representing Cathy Morgan, a volunteer election worker in Texas.

The motion filed today requests a preliminary injunction against the S.B. 1 provision no later than February 14, 2022. Texas has a primary election on March 1, 2022. To vote by mail in the primary, Texas voters must request mail ballot applications between January 1, 2022, and February 18, 2022.

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for me to do a critical part of my job, and it hurts the most vulnerable voters,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County Election Administrator. “As the highest-ranking election official in Harris County, I’m responsible for enabling the county’s millions of voters to exercise their right to cast a lawful ballot, many of whom face obstacles to voting in person due to illness, disability, or age. S.B. 1 subjects me to criminal prosecution for encouraging eligible voters to vote by mail so they may participate in our democracy –an option they have under Texas law.”

Under S.B. 1, Longoria, Morgan, and other election officials and election workers across Texas can be imprisoned for a minimum of six months and fined up to $10,000 if they encourage a voter to apply for a mail ballot application. As the motion filed today argues, this provision violates the First Amendment and undermines election officials’ and election workers’ ability to perform their duties.

“The right to free speech and the right to vote are vital to democracy, and S.B. 1 takes direct aim at both,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “Texas should be encouraging election officials to provide voters all the information they need to participate in elections. Instead, the legislature and the Governor have made it a crime to do so.”

Texas law allows voting by mail in certain circumstances, including when a voter is 65 years old or older, sick, or disabled, out of the country on election day, or confined in jail.

“This law was created to combat alleged voter fraud that we know does not exist, and instead hinders the ability to properly encourage seniors and voters with disabilities to exercise their right to vote by mail,” said Christian Menefee, the County Attorney for Harris County, Texas. “This anti-solicitation provision of SB 1 not only makes it harder for these folks vote, but it criminalizes the constitutionally protected free speech of the Harris County Elections Administrator and violates the First Amendment.”

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for public officials or election officials to encourage voters to request a mail ballot application, even if the person would be eligible to vote by mail. By contrast, under Texas law, it is not a crime for a public official or election official to discourage eligible voters to vote by mail,” said Liz Ryan, partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “There is no valid justification for such a one-sided restriction on speech.”

S.B. 1 went into effect on December 2, 2021. It is an omnibus law, containing the provision challenged in Longoria v. Paxton as well as restrictions on other aspects of voting and elections. The law has drawn multiple lawsuits in addition to Longoria v. Paxton. The Department of Justice has challenged S.B. 1 and, many other entities, including the Brennan Center (in LUPE v. Abbott), have also filed suit against various parts of the law.

The motion for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton is here.

The complaint, and more background on Longoria v Paxton, is here.

The first lawsuits filed against SB1 were filed in September, with Isabel Longoria a plaintiff in a complaint filed by MALDEF on behalf of a large group. The Justice Department lawsuit was filed in November, and there were three others filed in between. This one was filed on December 10, and if there was any news coverage of it I am not able to find it. The amended complaint was filed on Monday, December 27. It’s the motion for preliminary injunction, filed on Tuesday the 28th, for which I received a press release from the Harris County Attorney’s office, which in turn led me to find the linked article from the Brennan Center (and this Twitter thread), that is trying to make something happen more quickly.

My read on this – I’ve sent some questions to the Harris County Attorney’s office to get clarification – is that Elections Admin Longoria would like a ruling from the court to settle the question of what exactly she is and is not allowed to do, given that as things stand right now saying the wrong thing could get her arrested. We have the primaries coming up real soon, which means mail ballots are going to be getting requested, and people will have questions about them. Raising this as a First Amendment issue makes sense to me, and maybe it will make sense to the courts as well. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

UPDATE: Later in the day I found this Statesman story, which added a few details.

The ban on sending unsolicited mail-voting applications was one of many provisions contained in Senate Bill 1, the sweeping GOP voting law that was passed Sept. 1 during the Legislature’s second special session.

Several other provisions of SB 1 have been challenged in a half-dozen lawsuits by civil rights groups and the Biden administration’s Justice Department, including bans on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, ID requirements for mail-in ballots and protections for partisan poll watchers.

Those challenges are awaiting a summer trial.

Longoria and Morgan, however, told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio that waiting until summer is not an option for a prohibition that will handcuff them in the weeks leading up to the March 1 Texas primaries.

“Longoria has planned to engage in speeches and hold voter-outreach events but has been unable to do so for fear of criminal prosecution and civil penalties,” said Tuesday’s filing, adding that Longoria also halted plans to promote mail-in voting with fliers and on social media.

Similarly, Morgan argued in the filing that her work as a voter registrar — particularly around the University of Texas in Austin — will be hampered if she “can no longer proactively suggest that eligible but unaware voters request an application to vote by mail … as she has in the past.”

They asked Biery to rule no later than Feb. 14, noting that to cast a mail-in ballot in the primaries, voters must fill out and return an application between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, though his office opposes the request for an injunction and will respond to that in the future, as well.

So there you have it. My guess is that the state’s response will be some combination of “you can’t sue us” and “neener neener neener”, secure in the belief that the Fifth Circuit will undo anything Judge Biery does. I will of course keep an eye on it.

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

The top elections official in Harris County and a host of organizations that serve Texans of color and Texans with disabilities have fired the opening salvos in what’s expected to be an extensive legal battle over Texas’ new voting rules.

In separate federal lawsuits filed in Austin and San Antonio, the coalition of groups and Harris County sued the state over Senate Bill 1 before it was even signed into law, arguing it creates new hurdles and restrictions that will suppress voters and unconstitutionally discourage public officials and organizations from helping Texans exercise their right to vote.

The lawsuits claim the legislation violates a broad range of federal laws — the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — and the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

“Egregiously, SB 1 takes particular aim at voters with disabilities, voters with limited English proficiency — who, in Texas, are also overwhelmingly voters of color — and the organizations that represent, assist, and support these voters,” the plaintiffs in the Austin lawsuit wrote in their complaint.

The plaintiffs in the San Antonio lawsuit,, which includes Harris County, also raise claims that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in pushing the legislation.

[…]

The plaintiffs attack head on the lack of evidence that fraud is a widespread problem in Texas elections.

In the San Antonio lawsuit, they argue SB 1’s “additional burdens and restrictions” cannot be justified by invoking “unspecified and unproven voter fraud” when there is no proof that it occurs “beyond the very few examples already identified through Texas’s pre-existing processes and procedures.”

“Rather … SB1 is a reaction to Texas’s changing electorate, which is now more racially diverse and younger than ever before,” they wrote in their complaint.

The claims raised collectively in both lawsuits are as expansive as the legislation is far-ranging.

They include claims on SB 1’s new restrictions on voter assistance, including the help voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency are entitled to receive. The plaintiffs point to the reworked oath that a person assisting a voter must recite, now under penalty of perjury, that no longer explicitly includes answering the voter’s questions. Instead, they must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

As part of its claims of intentional discrimination, the lawsuit that includes Harris County as a plaintiff also calls out SB 1’s prohibition on the drive-thru and 24-hour voting initiatives used by the diverse, Democratic county in the 2020 election — both of which county officials said were disproportionately used by voters of color.

SB1 also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. Several counties proactively sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, but Harris County attempted to send them to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible.

In outlawing those voting initiatives, Republican lawmakers made it clear they were targeting the state’s most populous county, even though other counties employed similar voting methods.

“My first and only priority is to educate and help voters to lawfully cast their ballots,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said in a statement. “Voting by mail is not simply another method to vote — for many senior voters and voters with disabilities, it’s their only option to vote. SB1 makes it a crime for me to encourage those who are eligible to vote by mail to do so, effectively making it impossible to fulfill my sworn duty as Elections Administrator.”

Both lawsuits also argue the constitutionality of a section of SB 1 that creates new a “vote harvesting” criminal offense, which it defines as in-person interactions with voters “in the physical presence of an official ballot or a ballot voted by mail, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.” The lawsuits argue the language in that section — and the criminal penalties attached to it — are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague and could serve to quash legitimate voter turnout initiatives.

The lawsuits also challenge provisions of SB1 that bolster protections for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, and new ID requirements for voting by mail.

You can see copies of the lawsuits here for Austin and here for San Antonio. I note that Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, is a defendant in her official capacity in the Austin lawsuit and a plaintiff in the San Antonio lawsuit. I assume there’s a technical reason why a county elections administrator is named as a defendant in these actions, but I have no idea what algorithm is used to decide which county and administrator. (The Austin lawsuit also includes Dana DeBeauvoir from the Travis County elections office as a defendant, while the San Antonio lawsuit picks the Medina County admin. Go figure.)

I’m not going to speculate on the merits or chances of these lawsuits, which I assume will eventually get combined into a single action. I expect that they have a strong case, and we know from past performance that the Republicans in the Lege tend to be shoddy and indifferent in their work when they pass bills like these, but none of that really matters. What matters is what if anything the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS deign to find objectionable. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to get my hopes up. I expect the Justice Department to get involved on the side of the plaintiffs, and there’s always the specter of passing the John Lewis Act and making this way easier on everyone. In the meantime, settle in for the long haul, because we know this will take years to come to a resolution. Look to see what happens when (I feel confident saying “when” and not “if”) a temporary restraining order is granted.

More on the corporate response to voter suppression

It’s an encouraging start, but there’s an obvious next step that has so far not been mentioned.

With Republicans in Texas and other states continuing to advance restrictive election legislation, corporate chieftains around the country have stepped up their efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend voting rights.

Two prominent Black executives are enlisting major corporations to sign a new statement opposing “discriminatory legislation,” and PayPal and Twilio said Monday that they had agreed to add their names. Google, Netflix, BlackRock and Ford Motor will also sign, according to people familiar with the situation. Other companies were in discussions to do so, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

A group of major law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation.”

And a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new voting law, a warning shot to other legislatures.

“Corporations are always reticent to get engaged in partisan battling,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader who is in conversation with corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we’re going to protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.”

[…]

The Texas bills were central to a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate leaders met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate around voting rights.

Several on the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

Mia Mends, the chief administrative officer at Sodexo, who is Black and based in Houston, called on the other executives to focus their energies in Texas, and said she was doing the same.

“One of the things I’m doing this week is getting on the phone with many of our leaders to say: ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand,’” Ms. Mends said in a later interview. “And that means not just saying we support voting rights, but to talk concretely about what we need, what we’d like to see change in the bill.”

[…]

Like Georgia, Texas is an important state for big business, with companies and their employees drawn in part by tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved to Texas or expanded their presence there in recent years.

Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin next year, and produces some of its high-end computers at a plant in the area.

In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while the software company Oracle said it would take its headquarters to Austin. And last month, Elon Musk issued a plea on Twitter for engineers to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, his aerospace company.

Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presences in the state in recent months.

None of those companies have so far voiced opposition to the Texas legislation. And at least for now, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”

Again, all of this is encouraging, and unlike Georgia this has all happened before the bad bills have been passed, which allows for the possibility (however slim) that they may not be. Before I get to what’s missing, there’s another group that has gotten engaged in the fight: big law firms.

Some 60 major law firms are uniting around an effort “to challenge voter suppression legislation and to support national legislation to protect voting rights and increase voter participation,” Brad Karp, chairman of the heavyweight law firm Paul Weiss, told The New York Times.

Though the group has not been formally announced, Karp promised it would “emphatically denounce legislative efforts to make voting harder, not easier, for all eligible voters, by imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers on the right to vote.”

The firms are teaming up with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking Republican legislation across the country, to strategize about which laws to file legal challenges against.

“We plan to challenge any election law that would impose unnecessary barriers on the right to vote and that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups in our country,” Karp said. As one might expect, that includes the Georgia law, which has invited a flurry of fallout already for both the state and the Republican lawmakers who passed it.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, told the Times the coalition of law firms put lawmakers “on notice” that unconstitutional and legally flawed laws will almost certainly result in legal pushback.

“This is beyond the pale,” Waldman said of the GOP suppression laws. “You’re hearing that from the business community and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

That’s from the same story. It’s great that there’s a promise of vigorous litigation as needed, but we’ll have to see how the courts respond. For obvious reasons, there’s no reason to believe that SCOTUS will take an expansive view of voting rights.

Which brings me back to the thing that’s not yet in any of these conversations, and that’s consequences. It’s great to see this resistance to what Georgia has done and what Texas is attempting to do, though there remain some holes in the fabric. (Per Daily Kos, HP has since issued a strong statement against the Texas voter suppression bills, so good for them. Apple and Elon Musk, you’re on the clock.) But what happens if and when Texas goes ahead and passes its bill? What other than some Hollywood productions not filming in Georgia happens there? If at the end, when Greg Abbott signs SB7 or HB6 into law, does everyone shrug their shoulders, say “well, we did our best, let’s hope the lawyers can do better than we did”, and go home? Because if that does happen, then frankly most of this will have been a waste of time.

I’ve said this a million times now, but the only message that these Republican lawmakers will ever respond to is losing elections. If there isn’t some level of commitment to vote Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick (and Brian Kemp) and as many of the complicit legislators as possible out of office, then the lesson they will learn is that this kind of response is basically a kabuki dance, with no real action behind it. If everyone who is enacting these anti-democratic laws is still in power in 2023 or 2025, then there’s not only no incentive for them to change their ways, there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep on keeping on.

So thank you for speaking up now. It does matter, and it is needed. But in the end, it can’t just be talk. If these bills get passed anyway, there needs to be action. I’d like to hear some talk about that now, too, so we’re all clear on that point. Axios has more.

UPDATE: Janice McNair, controlling owner of the Houston Texans and widow of GOP mega-donor Bob McNair, has signed on to the big corporate “stop voter suppression” team. Good for her.

It’s Voter Suppression Week in the Senate

Delayed by a day, but that won’t stop anything.

Republican lawmakers in Texas are attempting to cement more bricks into the wall they hope will shield their hold on power from the state’s changing electorate.

After more than 20 years in firm control, the GOP is seeing its dominance of Texas politics slowly slip away, with some once reliable suburbs following big cities into the Democratic party’s fold.

This legislative session, Republicans are staging a sweeping legislative campaign to further tighten the state’s already restrictive voting rules and raise new barriers for some voters, clamping down in particular on local efforts to make voting easier.

If legislation they have introduced passes, future elections in Texas will look something like this: Voters with disabilities will be required to prove they can’t make it to the polls before they can get mail-in ballots. County election officials won’t be able to keep polling places open late to give voters like shift workers more time to cast their ballots. Partisan poll watchers will be allowed to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots at a polling place. Drive-thru voting would be outlawed. And local election officials may be forbidden from encouraging Texans to fill out applications to vote by mail, even if they meet the state’s strict eligibility rules.

Those provisions are in a Senate priority bill that was set to receive its first committee airing Monday, but Democrats delayed its consideration by invoking a rule that requires more public notice before the legislation is heard. Senate Bill 7 is part of a broader package of proposals to constrain local initiatives widening voter access in urban areas, made up largely by people of color, that favor Democrats.

The wave of new restrictions would crash up against an emerging Texas electorate that every election cycle includes more and more younger voters and voters of color. They risk compounding the hurdles marginalized people already face making themselves heard at the ballot box.

“I think Texans should be really frustrated with their politicians, because it is so obvious that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to put itself in a place where its people are safe with all the challenges we could be expecting to be facing in the modern era, and instead they’re figuring out how to stay in power,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is analyzing and tracking proposed voting restrictions across the country.

“Their manipulation has got a shelf life, and I think that’s part of the reason why they’re so desperate to do it right now because they see the end. They see what’s coming down the road for them.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but it occurs to me that the Republicans may be underestimating how much of a negative effect this will have on their own voters, at least their own voters in high-population areas. Plenty of Republicans vote by mail, and the boost that Republicans got in Latino areas last year came primarily from low-propensity voters, who are exactly the kind of people that will be affected by further restrictions on when and where to vote. They obviously think they will profit from all this, and I certainly may just be whistling past the graveyard, but Democratic voters have shown a lot of resilience in recent years, and these bills are based on lies and the hurt feelings of one particular person. Maybe they’re shooting themselves in the foot here. It sure would be nice to think so, anyway.

SCOTX upholds Abbott’s limit on mail ballot dropoff locations

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

In what’s expected to be the final ruling on the matter, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to only one drop-off location for voters to hand deliver their absentee ballots during the pandemic.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the all-Republican court, is the final outcome in one of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenged Abbott’s order from early this month. A federal appeals court also sided with the Republican governor in an earlier ruling, overturning a lower court’s decision.

The state lawsuit argued that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand-delivery locations, and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution. The suit was filed in Travis County by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group and a voter.

In their opinion, the justices wrote that Abbott’s order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

See here for the previous update. In a narrow and technical sense, the Supreme Court is correct. Abbott did in fact expand voting options with his original order, which not only added that extra week to early voting but also allowed for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period. State law only allows for that on Election Day, one of many problems that will need a legislative fix in the near future. But we all know that the purpose of his amended order, more than two months after Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had announced his plan to have dropoff locations at all 12 County Clerk offices, and several days after people began using those locations, was to issue a rebuke to Hollins for having the nerve to innovate like that, and to throw a bone to the howling nihilists in his own party that were attacking him for taking any step to make voting easier. The limit served no legitimate purpose, and was done in haste and with politics in mind. It is what it is at this point, and as with every other ad hoc obstacle thrown in our path, the voters have adjusted. We’ll be coming for you soon, Greg. The Chron has more.

SCOTX reinstates Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff location limit

They can move fast when they want to, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial order to limit Texas counties to one mail-ballot drop-off site was allowed to remain in effect Saturday by the Texas Supreme Court.

The court blocked a previous appellate court ruling that had briefly struck down Abbott’s order, which was widely decried by voting rights groups as a voter-suppression tactic. The lawsuit to overturn Abbott’s order is still pending.

In Harris County, more than 1 million voters have cast ballots during early voting, shattering previous records. Multiple drop-off sites had been set up for voters until Abbott issued his order, which he said would “stop attempts at illegal voting.”

State District Judge Tim Sulak had previously ruled that Abbott’s order would “needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections” and undermine the constitutionally protected rights of residents to vote, “as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”

Less than 24 hours after the Third Court of Appeals reinstated the district court ruling that had halted Abbott’s order. Clearly, SCOTX does not have a “we close at 5” mentality. It should be noted that this is not the end of the line. From the Statesman:

Acting soon after receiving an emergency appeal on Gov. Greg Abbott’s behalf, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order Saturday that temporarily barred counties from opening more than one drop-off site for mail-in ballots.

The court order keeps in place Abbott’s 3½-week-old proclamation that barred multiple drop-off locations that had opened in several counties, including Travis County, until the Supreme Court can determine the legality of Abbott’s limit.

With an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 3 election, the court also set tight deadlines, requiring legal briefs in the case to be filed before 5 p.m. Monday.

A ruling could come as soon as Monday night, though the Supreme Court gave no indication when it might act.

In theory, SCOTX could issue a ruling on the appeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we could get a few days of having multiple dropoff locations if the lower court order is upheld. Not great, but better than nothing. I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim, but it’s possible, and this is the best case scenario. At least you know what to hope for.

In practical terms, this means very little at this point. Very few people had ever used mail ballot dropoffs before. Existing law only allows for them to be used on Election Day – Abbott’s executive order extended that to all of early voting, which is an improvement even if his subsequent order limits it to a significant degree. Voting by mail is limited to begin with, and the vast majority of that small universe mailed their ballots in. Allowing people to drop them off at one of twelve locations instead of just one was an innovation, one of many that County Clerk Chris Hollins pioneered, and it was a welcome one in this year of COVID chaos, but losing it is more of an inconvenience than an impediment.

All that said, there is zero justification for Abbott’s order. People who wanted to drop off their mail ballots still had to go to an official County Clerk location, hand their ballot to an election judge, and show ID to have their ballot accepted. Fears of “fraud” and professions of “protecting election integrity” are empty shibboleths, the “thoughts and prayers” of vote suppression. Abbott imposed this limit as a sop to the extremists in his party who were already mad at him for adding an extra week to early voting. Hollins’ innovation made voting easier and more convenient. Abbott’s order made it harder and less convenient. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve said this before, but I firmly believe that a large majority of people like easier and more convenient voting, and support efforts to make it happen. There are lots of things the Democrats should un on in 2022. To me, this needs to be one of the big criticisms of Abbott – and Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton, and every single member of the Supreme Court – in that election. Being on the side of “easier and more convenient” is the side to be on.

Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Where are we with the lawsuit to stop Harris County from sending out vote by mail applications?

Thanks for asking, we had the hearing in district court yesterday.

Voting in person will be safe across Texas in this fall’s general election despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s elections director asserted in a Harris County courtroom Wednesday

Keith Ingram, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, made the statement while testifying against Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county.

“Voters who want to vote by mail, and qualify to vote by mail, they should. And voters who want to vote in person, we would encourage them to do so,” Ingram said. “It’ll be safe for them to do so, and the counties will have a good experience for the voters.”

The Attorney General’s Office called Ingram as a witness in an injunction hearing seeking to halt Hollins’s plan while the underlying case makes its way through the courts. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill made no immediate ruling on the injunction, though at times appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments.

At the heart of the case is whether Hollins would exceed his authority as county clerk by sending mail ballot applications to each voter, which Harris County never has done. In the four-hour online hearing, lawyers for the state and county described starkly different consequences of carrying out the plan.

Ingram said Harris County’s plan would confuse voters and encourage some to vote fraudulently, undermining the public’s trust in the integrity of elections. He noted that lying on a mail ballot application is a state jail felony and residents could be prosecuted well after this fall’s election.

“When something strange, or unusual happens, voters are very concerned that this is an opportunity for fraud, and when they think the other side is cheating, they tend to stay home, Ingram said. “That’s the concern about a mass mailing like this.”

Hollins said he simply is trying to help as many eligible voters cast ballots as possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many would feel safer voting by mail. The top of each application would feature a checklist explicitly explaining the eligibility rules. Hollins dismissed the state’s argument that voters would be confused as absurd.

“It would be a very bizarre and highly unlikely outcome that somehow, someone would unfold this fully, go to the very bottom, and think ‘I need to fill this out,’ without ever having looked up here,” Hollins said, pointing to a draft mailer in his hand.

See here and here for the background. You already know how I feel about this, and there’s nothing in this story to suggest that the state has improved on its weak arguments. I’m glad to see that Judge Sandill pointed out to the state that they had no objections before when Hollins sent applications to every over-65 voter in the county. There’s an edge of desperation in this lawsuit, and while one could argue it’s not the best use of the county’s money to do this, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court seems pretty clear.

Several organizations have taken action to support the County Clerk or oppose the state. The League of Women Voters of Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed an amicus brief, as HEB executive Charles Butt had previously done. The NAACP of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region filed a petition to intervene in opposition to the state, saying an injunction would harm the people they represent. Clerk Hollins’ response to Paxton is here. We should get the ruling by tomorrow, but we all know it will be appealed.

Speaking of such thing, here’s Hollins’ response to Hotze, from that ridiculous mandamus. The arguments are what you’d expect, and given the courtroom action in Houston I’d expect the Supremes to deny the writ, since there clearly is the time to litigate the matter. When they take action is of course anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

The math on redistricting

It’s not just that Republicans drew themselves a favorable map. It’s that they drew a durable favorable map.

Thanks to those very effective Republican redistricting maps, Texas Democrats would have to improve their statewide election results by more than 10 percentage points to gain more than one seat in the 36-member U.S. House delegation, according to a report from the non-profit Brennan Center for Justice.

The political maps in Texas and elsewhere across the country could ultimately protect the Republican majority in the U.S. House even if it turns out to be an otherwise mediocre midterm election for the president’s political party.

Overall, Republicans have a 24-seat advantage in the U.S. House. Democrats have an advantage over Republicans in recent polling, the report says, but gerrymandering makes a party switch much less likely. To win two dozen seats, by Brennan’s figuring, Democrats would have to win the national popular vote by 11 percentage points.

“Even a strong blue wave would crash against a wall of gerrymandered maps,” the report says.

The 2016 elections put 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House. Democrats got 42 percent of the state’s votes that year, according to the report’s authors. A modest improvement in the share — as little as 2 percent — could move a seat from the Republicans to the Democrats. It’s not hard to figure out that the 23rd Congressional District that runs along the border is what’s in play here; it’s the only true swing seat in the state, regularly primed to go to whichever party is having the better election year.

But here’s the house-on-stilts aspect to the maps. According to the Brennan Center’s projections, the Democrats could improve their statewide vote share by as much as 7 points — to 49 percent — and that’s still the only congressional seat they would pick up.

Listen carefully right now and you’ll hear protests from other parts of the state, like CD-32 in Dallas and CD-7 in Houston, where optimistic Democratic challengers are vying to unseat Pete Sessions and John Culberson. They might be right. The study isn’t trying to predict races. It’s trying to show how strongly the Republicans cemented their advantage in Texas, given normal conditions. Actual mileage may vary.

It would take a tsunami — a double-digit leap in Democrat’s percentage share — to gain more than a single seat in Texas. Something like that would still leave the Republicans in the majority, but it would be a 19-17 advantage instead of the 25-11 edge they have now. “For Democrats to win more than one-third of seats under the 2011 Texas map, they would need to win close to half the vote,” the report says.

The report is here and the executive summary is here. It looks at multiple states and is worth reading for its methodology and thoroughness. One way to look at this is that if Democrats can get to fifty percent of the statewide vote, then there are an awful lot of Congressional seats that would be poised to topple in their direction. Republicans drew this map on the quite reasonable so far assumption that Dems will not get to a majority of the statewide vote, but if that assumption were to fail they’d go from a trickle to a flood in a big hurry.

If it’s too daunting to think about like that, the way I look at it is that the magic number for Democrats is 2.7 million, which is to say 75% of their 2016 vote total. I’ve noodled around with the numbers before now, and that’s where things get interesting, in multiple districts. Not just Congressional districts, either – State Senate seats start to flip as well. On the one hand, that’s a huge increase over the usual off-year total. On the other hand, it’s asking people who have at least some history of voting to vote this year. Democrats gained 800,000 votes from 2004 to 2008, so a big jump can happen. What this report is saying, and I agree with it, is that this is what needs to happen. Are we up to it?

SOS halted from handing over voter info

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from handing voter information to President Donald Trump’s voter fraud investigation commission.

The order, which came out Tuesday, adds Texas to a growing list of states not complying with the president’s investigation into the 2016 elections, which Trump says suffered from large-scale voter fraud.

Judge Tim Sulak of the Austin-based 353rd Texas Civil District Court issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed July 20 by the League of Women Voters of Texas, its former president Ruthann Geer and the Texas NAACP against Pablos and Keith Ingram, the Texas Elections Division director in the the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state from handing over voter data from the state’s computerized voter registration files to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The suit argues that doing so would reveal voters’ personal information, “which may be used to solicit, harass, or otherwise infringe upon the privacy of Texas voters.”

[…]

The League’s current president, Elaine Wiant, said the organization is especially concerned that releasing the data could make millions of voters’ personal information public, making it vulnerable to commercial use. Texas law forbids public voter information from being used commercially, but with the presidential commission, Wiant said “there is no guarantee how it will get used.” Wiant also said the League is concerned that releasing the data would make voters’ birthdates public.

“In today’s world, that is just way too much information to be made available to the public,” Wiant said. “There are serious security concerns.”

The order, which expires Oct. 17 or with further order from the court, says that handing over voter information could cause “irreparable” injury. Without “appropriate safeguards,” the order argues, the data is likely to become public, potentially violating voters’ privacy rights, their interests in “avoiding commercial solicitation, chilling of their First Amendment rights, and the diminution of their efforts to encourage voting.”

See here and here for the background. There will be a hearing on the 16th, at which time this will presumably be extended or rescinded. In the meantime, the Trump commission has other legal problems to worry about. Let’s hope this is the end of it in Texas.

Lawsuit filed over giving voter data to bogus Trump commission

I missed this last week.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP said Thursday they have sued Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos over plans to release voter information to President Donald Trump’s election commission.

Texas law requires that safeguards be met to ensure such data isn’t used improperly, the groups said, and they must be followed before any data is sent to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity.

“The Secretary of State should strictly follow state law if he releases any voter information to the Commission,” Elaine Wiant, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said in a news release. “Releasing personal information could result in identity theft, causing great harm to Texas voters. Further, we fear that the Commission’s goal is voter suppression, not voter participation.”

See here for the background. This is separate from the open records request made by the ACLU of Texas. The suit was filed in state court in Travis County, and it alleges that the request violates Texas election statutes. . You can see the complaint here – it’s a bit dense for me, so I’ll leave it to the lawyers to offer an opinion. It’s fine by me if these plaintiffs succeed in getting an injunction, and as noted by the Brennan Center, Texas is not the only state where such a lawsuit has been filed. We’ll see how it goes – among other things, I’ll be very interested to see how the state responds to this. How hard will they fight for this if a judge puts a halt to it? It’s not clear to me that it’s in the Republican leadership’s best political interests to go balls to the wall on this one.

Your periodic reminder that non-citizens very rarely vote

I know you don’t need a reminder, being sophisticated followers of the news and all, but here it is anyway.

Since Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote in November, our new commander-in-chief has consistently attacked the legitimacy of popular vote totals that showed his rival, Hillary Clinton, well ahead of him on election day. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted in November. Although he has doubled down on the claim in several subsequent statements, offering an estimate of three to five million illegal votes and complaints about specific states, Trump has failed to provide evidence of widespread fraud.

Myrna Pérez, a Texas native and civil rights lawyer, won’t take the president at his word. As head of the Voting Rights and Elections project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, Pérez has seen states around the country—Texas included—rushing to respond to voter fraud threats. “As someone who’s driven by data, as someone who researches elections, as someone who is in the business of making sure our elections represent the voices of actual Americans, I’m very troubled at the policies we see that seem to not have any science or data behind them,” Pérez says.

Pérez, a graduate of San Antonio’s Douglas MacArthur High School who now teaches at Columbia and NYU law schools, decided to check if Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud had any empirical backing. Her team at the Brennan Center reached out to all 44 counties in the U.S. that are home to more than 100,000 non-citizens. The team also contacted several of the largest and most diverse counties in the three states—California, New Hampshire, and Virginia—where Trump made specific claims of “serious voter fraud.” Forty-two counties responded to Perez’s queries, including Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, and El Paso counties in Texas. The counties Pérez’s team interviewed accounted for over 23.5 million votes in the 2016 election. However, the county elections administrators reported a combined total of only 30 fraudulent noncitizen votes in 2016—about .00001 percent of the votes totaled.

“Noncitizen voting in Texas, as in the rest of the country, is rare,” Pérez concludes. As for the nationwide total of fraudulent votes, she says her methodology doesn’t offer a reliable estimate, but that there is no way it’s three to five million people. “Not even close,” she says.

Pérez’s criticisms are echoed by elections administrators around Texas—the people work to assure that eligible voters can cast a ballot and ineligible voters cannot. “I have not seen the numbers to support that,” says El Paso County elections administrator Lisa Wise, referring to Trump’s three to five million claim. “The integrity of elections is a priority for this department, and I believe that it is intact until I see differently.” Bexar County elections administrator Jacquelyn Callanen also backs that sentiment. “I welcome the light being shined on this, to show that our records are well-maintained,” Callanen says. “We stand for integrity. We take such pride and we do such, I think, a magnificent job of list maintenance and voter participation.”

You get the idea. I will point out, as I have done with stories about how incredibly rare other forms of voter fraud are, that our current Attorney General and our previous Attorney General would each sell their soul (well, maybe they’d sell your soul) to bust and convict any number of non-citizens they could catch in the act of voting. The fact that they have conspicuously failed to do so over a multi-year and multi-election period of time should tell you something.

Redistricting trial week begins

This will be the main event of the week.

Eight months ahead of the 2018 primaries, Texas and its legal foes on Monday will kick off a week-long trial that could shake up races across the state.

The state and minority rights groups have been squabbling for six years over new political district boundaries drawn following the 2010 census. As part of a long-winding legal battle, a panel of three federal judges this week will reconvene in a federal courthouse here to consider the validity of the state’s political maps and whether changes should quickly be made to the state’s House and Congressional boundaries ahead of the midterm elections. At issue is whether the current boundaries violate the voting rights of millions of Texans of color.

The showdown comes months after the panel of judges found fault with the state’s 2011 drafts of the political maps. In a pair of rulings this spring, the judges also found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting them.

Those rulings did not require an immediate remedy because the state has been running elections since 2013 under court-drawn maps that were crafted amid an election scramble and later adopted by the Legislature.

But the judges are now turning their attention to the existing boundaries.

There’s an overview of how we got here and what is at stake in that story and also in this Statesman story, which notes the time factor:

Don’t expect immediate gratification. When the trial closes Friday or Saturday, the judges will take the matter under advisement — though a written ruling is expected relatively quickly as the court labors under looming election deadlines.

State officials have advised the court that any new maps would have to be ready by around Oct. 1 to meet deadlines for setting precinct lines and to allow candidate filing for the 2018 primaries to begin, as scheduled, in mid-November. Complicating the timing will be the inevitable appeal that the losing side will make directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If new maps are needed, the judges likely will order additional input on how to redraw district boundaries, lawyers said Friday.

The maps in question are the Congressional and State House maps that were implemented in 2013. Those maps in turn are basically identical to the interim maps created in 2011 after preclearance was rejected; the Lege adopted them with a couple of tweaks. The state claims that since the current maps are based on ones that had been drawn by the court, they cannot be discriminatory. The plaintiffs note that the 2013 maps differ only a little from the 2011 maps, which were ruled to be discriminatory, and that many of the problematic elements of the 2011 maps exist in the same form in the 2013 maps. The trial this week is to answer the question whether the existing maps are discriminatory, and if so what should replace them and also should the state be bailed back into preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. This Brennan Center article explains it better than I just did, with more details.

Here’s the Trib Day One story. A couple of highlights:

With Texas becoming less white each day, lawyers for minority rights groups opened their push for new maps by parsing the state’s demographic growth, which shows that the population of eligible white voters has significantly declined since 2010.

When asked by federal district Judge Orlando Garcia how this relates to the 2013 maps, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ lawyer, Jose Garza, indicated it was proof that Texans of color don’t have proportional representation under the maps currently in place.

“Even today … minorities are underrepresented when measured against population data and population figures,” Garza said.

MALC also presented an alternative map to demonstrate that the state House boundaries could have been drawn in a way that minimized the slicing of municipalities and created additional “opportunity districts” where minority voters are able to select their preferred candidates.

Creating that type of district was not a legislative priority when the House took on redistricting in 2013; lawmakers only made “cosmetic changes” that didn’t “improve the overall map for minority opportunity,” former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer testified before the court.

In 2011, state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional maps following the 2010 census, but they were immediately challenged in court on the basis that they diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black voters. The court drew interim maps amid an election scramble, and the Legislature in 2013 moved to adopt them.

Martinez Fischer argued that efforts to improve those maps for minority representation were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“It was almost all upon deaf ears,” Martinez Fischer said.

All the plaintiffs’ briefs for the trial can be found here. The demonstration map mentioned in the story for the State House is H391, and C285 is for Congress, with the former drawn by MALC and the latter by MALC, LULAC, and the Perez plaintiffs. There more of these – go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us/, choose a Shaded Plan, change the Category to All, and scroll down. The last maps listed for each type will be the ones being shown in the trial. Michael Li of the Brennan Center is live-tweeting the trial, so follow along with him for the play-by-play. I’ll do my best to keep up as well.

SCOTUS takes on Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case

Monday’s big news.

Partisan gerrymandering exists because the Supreme Court allows it to exist. Although such gerrymanders are a form a viewpoint discrimination, which violates the First Amendment, Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have been reluctant to even let federal courts consider partisan gerrymandering cases — much less strike down actual gerrymanders.

That could all change, however, as the Supreme Court just announced it will hear Gill v. Whitford, a case that presents the most promising challenge to a partisan gerrymander in more than a decade. In Whitford, a divided three-judge panel held, in an opinion by Reagan-appointed Judge Kenneth Ripple, that Wisconsin’s state assembly maps violate the Constitution.

Notably, the plaintiffs’ arguments in Whitford are tailor-made to address a concern Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court’s ostensible “swing” vote, raised in a 2004 opinion. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, the Court’s other conservatives joined an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, which would have slammed the door on partisan gerrymandering suits entirely. Kennedy, however, left the narrowest of cracks open in his separate concurrence.

[…]

Though Kennedy worried about “the failings of the many proposed standards for measuring the burden a gerrymander imposes on representational rights” — that is, the fact that it is difficult to come up with an objective test courts can use to determine which maps are gerrymanders — he also concluded that “if workable standards do emerge to measure these burdens . . . courts should be prepared to order relief.”

Whitford accepts this challenge by proposing a mathematical formula that judges can use to identify partisan gerrymanders. Gerrymanders work by forcing one party to “waste” votes. Voters are either “cracked,” pushed into districts where their party has no chance of winning; or “packed,” crammed into districts where their party has such an overwhelming majority that additional votes for their candidate are superfluous.

A gerrymander, scholars Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee, who devised the formula at the heart of Whitford, explain “is simply a district plan that results in one party wasting many more votes than its adversary.”

Stephanopoulos and McGhee’s formula counts the number of wasted Democratic votes that results in an election held under a particular map, and compares it to the number of wasted Republican votes. Maps that create a large disparity may then potentially be struck down as gerrymanders if the plaintiffs can also show that they were drawn with partisan intent.

I note this primarily because it’s always of interest when SCOTUS takes up a redistricting case, but also because as the Trib notes, there could be an effect on Texas as well.

But the cases are very different: The Wisconsin case revolves around whether partisanship played too large a role into redistricting, while the Texas case focuses on race. In fact, part of Texas’ argument claims redistricting was indeed based on partisanship — something courts have allowed in the past. “A rule against partisan gerrymandering will have a major impact for communities of color, where partisanship unfortunately has often been used as an excuse for actions that hurt minorities,” [Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice] said in a statement.

What’s next? It’s unclear if the Wisconsin case, which the U.S Supreme Court is set to consider in its term that begins in November, could affect the pending case in Texas, because of the different timelines and arguments being made. And the justices must also decide whether they even have the jurisdiction to rule in the Wisconsin case, a question they left open in accepting the case. But the high court could ultimately establish a new limit on the role politics plays into redistricting. If that were to occur, it would almost certainly affect map drawing in Texas going forward and give opponents of the current Texas’ maps a new avenue to challenge them.

The Michael Li statement is here. It seems likely to me that we will have a new Congressional map in Texas for 2018 based on the existing litigation, but there could be further action in the future after SCOTUS rules in the Wisconsin case. I should note that while Wisconsin is one of several particularly egregious states in terms of legislative gerrymandering – we’re talking states that are basically 50-50 at the Presidential level (or considerably bluer, as is the case in Virginia) but where Republicans have a two-thirds majority or close to it in their state House and Senate – Texas isn’t that ridiculous. Going by recent statewide results, you could argue Dems “deserve” somewhere between 58 and 65 House seats, and 12 or 13 in the Senate. That’s not out of the question for them next year if the 2018 winds blow favorably. We’ll see where this goes, and as always all eyes will be on Anthony Kennedy, our true lord and master. Daily Kos, the DMN, the WaPo, Texas Redistricting, and Rick Hasen have more.

So what will the Justice Department do with voter ID now?

We don’t know yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Hours after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, the Department of Justice filed to postpone a hearing on the Texas Voter ID law. The request was granted. The DOJ had previously argued that the law intentionally discriminated against minority voters, but told the court it needed additional time for the new administration to “brief the new leadership of the Department on this case and the issues to be addressed at that hearing before making any representations to the Court.”

Chad Dunn, attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, expects Trump’s Department of Justice to reverse course. “I figure the government will spend the next 30 days figuring out how to change its mind,” he said, adding that now he expects the DOJ to argue on behalf of the state of Texas, which has held that there was no intent to discriminate against minorities. “The facts did not change – just the personnel.”

The new hearing date has been set for Feb. 28.

Myrna Perez is the deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and leader of the center’s Voting Rights and Elections project. The Brennan Center was also set to offer oral arguments against the ID law on Tuesday, and Perez said she was “disappointed” with the DOJ’s decision to postpone the hearing. “Numerous courts have held that this law harms minority voters in Texas and we think delaying resolution of this case in that matter isn’t good for Texans,” she said.

[…]

The DOJ had previously argued that the law violated the Voting Rights Act and was intended to directly impact the abilities of minorities to vote, as more than 600,000 of them lacked the ID necessary under state law to vote. Dunn now expects the agency to reverse course.

Trump has not yet had an opportunity to nominate, let alone see confirmed, new judges.

“I don’t expect the outcome of this case to change because we’ve elected a new president,” Dunn said. “For people like me who handle civil rights case and the many who came before me to who did the same, we’re used to fighting against government at all its levels.”

See here for the background. It would be a shame, though it would hardly be a surprise, if the Justice Department changed course. I mean, this is GOP doctrine now, and you can’t send any clearer a signal than appointing Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as AG. It would be nice for the Justice Department to stay on the right side of this, but in the end I think Chad Dunn is correct. The facts haven’t changed, and the plaintiffs have had plenty of experience fighting against the government. Vox has more.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

Voter fraud: Still a myth

Just a reminder, in case you needed one.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Politicians and voting rights advocates continue to clash over whether photo ID and other voting requirements are needed to prevent voter fraud, but a News21 analysis and recent court rulings show little evidence that such fraud is widespread.

A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls.

This year, News21 reviewed cases in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud, and found hundreds of allegations but few prosecutions between 2012 and 2016. Attorneys general in those states successfully prosecuted 38 cases, though other cases may have been litigated at the county level. At least one-third of those cases involved nonvoters, such as elections officials or volunteers. None of the cases prosecuted was for voter impersonation.

“Voter fraud is not a significant problem in the country,” Jennifer Clark of the Brennan Center, a public policy and law institute, told News21. “As the evidence that has come out in some recent court cases and reports and basically every analysis that has ever been done has concluded: It is not a significant concern.”

Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden who wrote a book on the phenomenon in 2010 called “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said in an interview that she hasn’t seen an uptick in the crime since. “Voter fraud remains rare because it is irrational behavior,” she said. “You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there and we have rules to prevent against it.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called voter fraud “rampant” in Texas. A records request from News21 to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas shows that more than 360 allegations of voter fraud were sent to the attorney general since 2012. Fifteen of those cases were successfully prosecuted. Four of those convicted were voters – the rest were elections officials or third-party volunteers.

Minnite, who has studied voter fraud for 15 years, said that actual instances of fraud lie somewhere between the number successfully prosecuted and the number of allegations. In her experience, few allegations meet the criteria of fraud: “intentional corruption of the electoral process” by voters.

“Large numbers getting reduced, reduced, reduced at each level is the pattern that I’ve seen over and over and over again,” Minnite said. “The assumption should be the reverse of what it is. It should be ‘We’ve got a lot of errors here.’”

We’ve covered a lot of this before, so you know the drill. The logistics of vote fraud by impersonation have never made any sense, especially when compared to fraud by mail ballot, compromising electronic voting machines, or corrupting the vote counting process, but then it was never about making sense. Look at it this way: If voter fraud really is as “rampant” as Greg Abbott claims it is, then he was massively incompetent as Attorney General at rooting it out. And Ken Paxton isn’t any better at it, either. By their own logic, they were and are terrible failures as Attorney General.

Anyway. News21 is “a cornerstone of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education”, which you can read about at that link. This story was part of their impressively large Voting Wars project, which features a load of stories about the process, politics, and demographics of voting. Check it out.

Is the Evenwel decision the last word on “one person one vote”?

Maybe not.

With a long-running legal struggle raging over one of the nation’s strictest voter identification laws, Texas was already a prime battleground in a war between conservatives and liberals over voting rights. And on Monday, experts here and elsewhere say, the Supreme Court may have opened a second front.

The court said unanimously that the state could take into account all of its 27 million residents when it carves its territory into voting districts for the State Senate, regardless of whether they can vote in elections. It was a setback for conservatives who want to limit that redistricting population to eligible voters, and a resounding affirmation of the one-person-one-vote principle that has governed most redistricting nationwide for decades.

But it was probably not the final word because the court was silent on whether any other population formula could be used to draw new voting districts. And within hours, advocates on both sides of the issue indicated that Texas or another conservative-dominated state was bound to do just that, probably after the 2020 census triggers a new round of redistricting nationwide.

“This has been an issue that has bubbled up in the courts and in the realm of social science pretty consistently,” said Edward Blum, the president of the Project on Fair Representation, the conservative advocacy group that brought the lawsuit. He said the group would urge political officials to abandon the one-person-one-vote formula for a more limited guideline, something that almost certainly would lead to a second court battle. And the state of Texas, the defendant in the group’s lawsuit, indicated in court filings that it would prefer to have that option.

“The big case isn’t this case, but the next case,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, a professor at Ohio State’s Mortiz College of Law and an authority on elections law.

Maybe yes.

“The court went as far as it possibly could go in casting a pall on the possible idea of challenging this again with an alternative method of counting,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on a press call with reporters Monday. She and others pointed to a footnote in Ginsburg’s opinion that suggested she doubted it would even be possible to draw districts the way the challengers were advocating without ignoring other traditional redistricting principles.

“That language very firmly closes the door on the idea that trying to [use] something other than total population is a good idea,” Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said on the same press call.

That’s not to say that Blum and others won’t try, but their argument for why states should think they’d be allowed to do so just got a lot harder with the language in the majority opinion.

“Any state that’s thinking about doing that is going to have to think that there’s a very serious risk that they’re going to get tied up in a lot of litigation,” Sam Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who previously worked in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, told TPM.

But it’s not just for legal reasons that states have largely stuck to using total population to draw their districts. As Evenwel revealed, there is an absence of data that is a reliable as the census’ total population numbers. And it’s not just Democratic-leaning minority populations that would be negatively affected. Districts with a lot of children, for instance, could also be at risk, a reality Ginsburg also nodded to in her opinion.

“There’s certainly people who will try to make the argument and see if any legislature will bite,” said Michael Li, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, a non-partisan organization that defends voting rights. “States really have chosen to do total population for a lot of good reasons, both the political consequences and that the data is much much better.”

See here for the background. I don’t expect a zealot like Edward Blum to go away – this is his life’s work – but the commentary I read after the decision was handed down suggests it won’t be easy. A state would have to draw a Blum-style map and then defend it in court. If they took that route, the key question would be whether their Blum map would be stopped by the courts while the litigation was ongoing, or would they get to use something like it as has been the case with the 2011/2013 maps? In that case, there’s much to be gained and little to lose, but if not you could wind up spending a ton on litigation and in the worst case having the door permanently slammed on this approach. Check back in 2021 and we’ll see if Texas or some other state takes up the challenge.

Our obsolete voting machines

From the Brennan Center:

Executive Summary

In January 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued a stern warning that should be of grave concern to all Americans: There is an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago. … Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had funds.”

This report, nearly two years later, documents in detail the extent of the problem and the steps we must take in the coming years to address it. Over the past 10 months, the Brennan Center surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including voting machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states. In addition, we reviewed scores of public documents to quantify in greater detail the extent of the crisis. We explore the current challenge in three parts: (1) the danger, looking at the age of machines around the country relative to their expected lifespans and the problems that we can expect; (2) the new technologies that can help solve the problem going forward; and (3) recommended solutions to the impending crisis.

Among our key findings:

  • Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change. No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. And although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s.
  • While it is impossible to say how long any particular machine will last, experts agree that for those purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is probably closer to 10 than 20.
    • The majority of machines in use today are either perilously close to or exceed these estimates. Forty-three states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016. In most of these states, the majority of election districts are using machines that are at least 10 years old.
    • In 14 states, machines will be 15 or more years old.
    • Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured and many election officials struggle to find replacement parts.
  • The longer we delay purchasing new equipment, the more problems we risk.
    • The biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes.
    • Older machines can also have serious security and reliability flaws that are unacceptable today. For example, Virginia recently decertified a voting system used in 24 percent of precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data.
    • Smaller problems can also shake public confidence. Several election officials mentioned “flipped votes” on touch screen machines, where a voter touches the name of one candidate, but the machine registers it as a selection for another.
  • Election officials who believe they need to buy new machines do not have sufficient resources.
    • Election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. Officials from 22 of these states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them.
    • Based upon recent contracts and assessments provided by election officials, the Brennan Center estimates the initial national cost of replacing equipment over the next few yearscould exceed $1 billion, though that could be partially offset by lower operating costs and better contracts than are currently used in many jurisdictions.
    • As election jurisdictions diverge in how they respond to the crisis, we see an increasing divide among, and even within, states in the ability to ensure elections can be conducted without system failures and disruption.
    • A preliminary analysis by the Brennan Center lends support to the concern expressed by some officials that without federal or state funding, wealthier counties will replace aging machines, while poorer counties will be forced to use them far longer than they should.

These are troubling findings, but our study also provides hope for the future. Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, offering the possibility of machines that are more reliable, more usable, and less expensive. Several recent innovations — often driven by election officials who have worked with vendors, academics, and voters — could point the way to more affordable and flexible 21st century machines. While such advances may help us in future years, they will not resolve today’s crisis. There is no escaping the immediate need to plan and set aside sufficient funds to buy new machines.

See here for the press release, and here for the full report. This is from a couple of months ago, and I’ve had it in my queue since then, but as we’re about to have a couple of maximal-turnout elections this year, it seemed like a good time to bring this up. Travis County is doing what it can to pioneer newer, better, and more secure voting machines, but it’s hard to imagine the rest of the state following their lead. We might spend $8 million defending an unconstitutional voter ID law, but we won’t spend a dime on new voting machines until we absolutely have to. Which most likely means once there’s been a proven catastrophe of some kind. Such a catastrophe need not happen in Texas – this is a national problem – but heaven help us if it happens in next year’s Presidential election. I don’t even want to think about the possibilities there. Link via Daily Kos.

Fifth Circuit to hear Texas voter ID appeal

There’s more than one big appellate case being heard today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas voter identification law will make a stop at a federal appeals court in New Orleans on Tuesday on a likely path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller and lawyers representing plaintiffs, including the U.S. Justice Department, will present arguments to a three-judge panel, with a ruling to come later.

The Texas case, one of several legal challenges of state voter ID laws, is unique because a judge found evidence of intentional racial discrimination by legislators in crafting the law, said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert in election law.

“It is Texas’ motivations on trial,” Hasen said. “Texas is going to be out there front and center, arguing that the finding is wrong.”

[…]

The panel of judges will have to decide if Ramos was “clearly wrong” in her ruling, and that could be a hard decision for any appellate court, said Myrna Pérez, director of Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “There was a very strong record in this case.”

Two plaintiffs’ lawyers will participate in the oral arguments: Erin Flynn with the U.S. Justice Department, and Chad Dunn, who is representing the lead plaintiffs in the Texas case — U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Dunn said he intends to show the judges the “overwhelming evidence against this law” and how it compels them to reach the same conclusion as Ramos.

“It’s not that Texas can’t adopt an identification law for voting, it’s that the individual decisions made with this law make it unconstitutional,” Dunn said, noting the narrow list of valid IDs needed to vote.

As a review, Judge Ramos ruled against the voter ID law in October, but it was allowed to be enforced after the Fifth Circuit (naturally) lifted Judge Ramos’ stay on the ruling. In late November the plaintiffs asked the Fifth Circuit to hurry up with the appeal already; I’m not sure if the timing of this hearing reflects a favorable response to that or not. In any event, here we are, and for once things are a tad bit different:

The three-judge panel set to hear arguments on the Texas voter ID case includes two Democratic appointees.

On the panel: Chief Judge Carl Stewart, appointed by President Bill Clinton; Judge Catharina Haynes, appointed by President George W. Bush; and Judge Nannette Brown, appointed by President Barack Obama.

Who knew such a thing was even possible? The panel’s decision can still be appealed to the full court, and then to SCOTUS, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are other lawsuits against state voter ID laws, but this one is farther along than they are, and would be first in line at SCOTUS when it comes to that. I’m very eager to see what these judges make of the appeals. The Brennan Center has a three part series on people who were directly affected by the enforcement of voter ID last November, and the Huffington Post and Texas Election Law Blog have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which reminds us that putting Texas back under the auspices of preclearance is also at stake.

Defense to begin in voter ID lawsuit

Entering the home stretch.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas voter ID trial with national implications is shifting its focus in U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’ courtroom Tuesday.

After a week of testimony largely opposed to the law, the State of Texas’ legal team is slated to begin making its case for the law’s constitutionality and necessity after opponents rest their case Tuesday morning at the courthouse.

Closing arguments from both sides are likely to come Thursday after two sessions of witness testimony from the state’s side, but the final verdict from Ramos could be weeks away.

Attorney Chad Dunn, representing one of the plaintiffs fighting the law, told the Caller-Times on Monday the smaller amount of testimony planned for the state’s defense could shed light on how the case will be seen by Ramos.

“The State doesn’t have much of a defense,” Dunn said. “After three-and-a-half years litigating to enforce this law and millions of dollars spent, the state is still unable to justify the tremendous burden this puts on voting.”

As noted before, the best and most comprehensive coverage of the voter ID trial has been by the Brennan Center for Justice. Here are their updates from Monday and Tuesday, which brings us up to date. My guess is that the state won’t trot out an affirmative defense so much as they’ll put on a few witnesses to try to undermine the plaintiffs’ case. Given the fervent belief that some folks have in the shibboleth of in-person vote fraud and the AG’s recent embrace of sock puppet witnesses, the potential for some kind of chicanery is non-trivial. We’ll see what path they go down. The Lone Star Project has more, and see also this Vice News overview of the voter ID saga.

The best coverage of the voter ID trial

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

You want to know what’s going on with the voter ID trial, which enters its second and likely final week today, go check out the Brennan Center for Justice, which has daily coverage that would put any newspaper to shame. Here’s a sample of what they’ve written so far:

Further daily dispatches will be on this page, and there’s also their Twitter feed if you can’t wait that long. The main page has more information in addition to their trial reporting, so go take a nice long look. If that still isn’t enough, copies of all the court documents can be found at the Moritz Law School repository. I trust that will be enough to hold you off. Thanks to the Texas Election Law Blog for the heads up.