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Three more lawsuits filed against the voter suppression law

It’s a law now, and the legal machines are humming to do something about it.

Though delayed by Democratic quorum breaks, Texas has officially joined the slate of Republican states that have enacted new voting restrictions following the 2020 election.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 1, sweeping legislation that further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties’ ability to expand voting options. The governor’s signature ends months of legislative clashes and standoffs during which Democrats — propelled by concerns that the legislation raises new barriers for marginalized voters — forced Republicans into two extra legislative sessions.

SB 1 is set to take effect three months after the special legislative session, in time for the 2022 primary elections. But it could still be caught up in the federal courts. Abbott’s signature was both preceded and followed by a flurry of legal challenges that generally argue that the law will disproportionately harm voters of color and voters with disabilities.

On top of two federal lawsuits filed last week, three new lawsuits, including one in state district court, were filed Tuesday shortly after it became law.

[…]

The law already faces two legal challenges from Harris County and a coalition of community and advocacy groups that argue SB 1’s rewrite of Texas voting laws creates new hurdles and restrictions that will suppress voters and violates the U.S. Constitution and numerous federal laws.

Abbott’s signature Tuesday drew three more lawsuits that also argue the changes to elections in SB 1 are unlawful because they will disproportionately burden voters of color and voters with disabilities.

“SB 1 is an arduous law designed to limit Tejanos’ ability to exercise their full citizenship,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, which is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed in Austin on Tuesday. “Not only are we filing suit to protect the right to vote for all people of color, and the additional 250,000 young Latino Tejanos who will reach voting age in 2022, but to protect every Texan’s right to vote.”

Another legal challenge was filed in state district court in Harris County and raises claims that the law runs afoul of the the Texas Constitution, including its protection against racial discrimination.

[…]

As it worked toward getting the legislation across the finish line, the House also made changes Democrats had been pushing for, including requiring training for poll watchers. Republicans also ditched controversial provisions that would have restricted Sunday voting hours and made it easier for judges to overturn elections — both of which they tried to walk away from after Democrats first derailed the legislation in May during the regular legislative session.

Even with some of those changes, a group of plaintiffs in another federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, including Houston Justice and the Arc of Texas, say the legal intervention was needed to “ensure that the State does not continue to erect barriers” that have both the “intent and effect” of suppressing the votes of marginalized Texans.

“These provisions will harm all Texas voters, but consistent with Jim Crow era tradition, the burdens will be disproportionately borne by Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint. “S.B. 1 intentionally targets and burdens methods and opportunities of voting used by and responsive to the needs of voters of color, particularly Black and Latino voters, and other vulnerable voters, as evidenced by the 2020 elections.”

There are also questions on whether the U.S. Department of Justice will sue Texas over the new law, as it did Georgia earlier this year after lawmakers there passed a new law to tighten elections.

It remains unclear what, if any, Congressional action could affect the new law.

See here for more on the first two lawsuits. Before I get to the others, let me just say that if the John Lewis Act doesn’t have any effect on the new law, then either the authors of the bill are incompetent or the federal courts really have it in for us. But that assumes the damn thing can overcome the stupid filibuster, so let’s put that question off for later.

For the other lawsuits, here are the basics:

– The first lawsuit referenced is here, and it’s probably best just to print the announcement about it for the relevant details.

Minutes after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed voter suppression bill Senate Bill 1 into law on Tuesday, voting and civil rights groups sued to challenge the bill’s most disenfranchising provisions. The complaint, filed by LULAC Texas, Voto Latino, Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and Texas AFT, alleges that the new law imposes an undue burden on the right to vote in violation of the First and 14th Amendments, purposely intends to limit minority voters’ access to the ballot box in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and disproportionately impacts voters with disabilities and limited language proficiencies in violation of Section 208 of the VRA. The suit asks the court to prohibit the suppressive provisions from being enforced. This is the third lawsuit challenging S.B. 1, as two cases were filed last Friday before the bill was even signed into law.

The provisions challenged in this lawsuit include: criminalizing public officials’ efforts to encourage the submission of absentee ballot applications; additional ID requirements for absentee voting; the effective elimination of drop boxes, drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting; new obstacles for voters to receive assistance to vote absentee or in person; and the empowerment of partisan poll watchers.

The complaint argues that the passage of S.B. 1 is in direct response to increased voter turnout in the 2020 election, particularly among voters of color, and is meant to “stem the growing tide of minority voter participation.” The lawsuit argues that “by surgically targeting election practices employed in Texas’s largest and most diverse jurisdictions—methods on which the State’s Black and Hispanic populations disproportionately rely—the [challenged provisions] were intended to disproportionately restrict access to the franchise for Black and Hispanic voters.” Furthermore, the suit alleges that certain provisions place an undue burden on the right to vote for elderly voters, voters with disabilities and voters with limited language proficiencies.

Read the complaint here.

All that is courtesy of Democracy Docket, which had promised litigation the minute that SB1 passed in the House.

– The other federal lawsuit comes from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:

Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)Reed Smith LLP, and The Arc filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Houston Area Urban League, Houston Justice, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and The Arc of Texas challenging S.B. 1, a new Texas law targeting voting rights.  S.B. 1 includes a series of suppressive voting-related provisions that will make it much harder for Texas residents to vote and disenfranchise some altogether, particularly Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities.The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, argues that S.B. 1 violates the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally targeting and burdening methods and means of voting used by voters of color.

The Plaintiffs also claim that the law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act by imposing voting barriers that will discriminate against voters with disabilities and deny people with disabilities full and equal opportunities to participate in the state’s voting programs.

The lawsuit challenges multiple provisions in SB 1, including:

  • Limitations on early voting hours and a ban on 24-hour voting.
  • The elimination of drive-thru voting centers.
  • The prohibition of mail-in ballot drop-boxes.
  • Limitations on the distribution of mail-in ballot applications.
  • Limitations and possible penalties for voter assistants, including criminal felonies.

Read the lawsuit challenging S.B. 1.

You can read the press release for statements from the plaintiffs.

– The state lawsuit comes from another group we’ve heard from before.

The Texas State Legislature’s SB 1 legislation violates provisions of the Texas Constitution that protect the right to vote, the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to due process, and the right to equal protection under law, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by civil rights advocates against Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Kevin Paxton, Deputy Secretary of State Joe Esparza, and the future secretary of state, once that position is filled.

Despite the hardships of voting during a global pandemic, during the 2020 general election, Texas saw one of its highest voter turnouts in decades, particularly among Black voters and other voters of color.  SB 1 was passed on the heels of the successful 2020 election, with the intent to suppress these votes. The legislation includes provisions that expand the power of partisan poll watchers, limit county election officials’ discretion to adopt safe and secure methods of voting, make it more difficult for voters to receive assistance, and place restrictions on absentee ballots, ballot drop boxes, and early voting.

The lawsuit, Texas State Conference of the NAACP et al. v. Abbott et al., was filed in state district court in Harris County, Texas. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dechert LLP are representing the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, Common Cause Texas, three election judges, one voter assistant, and one registered voter in Harris County.

“The scourge of state-sanctioned voter suppression is alive and well, and Texas just became the most recent state to prove it,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “With the passage of this bill, Texas legislators know exactly what they are trying to do – use brazen tactics to disenfranchise Black voters, Latinx voters, and other voters of color who are a growing part of the electorate and who turned out and made their voices heard in 2020. This bill violates Texas’ own state constitution and does not advance any legitimate state interests that would justify this wide-ranging attack on the right to vote.”

SB 1 expands the power of partisan poll watchers by instituting criminal penalties for election officials who obstruct their actions, stripping local election officials of the power to take executive action in emergency situations, and exposing voter assistants to increased surveillance and administrative complexities. Furthermore, the legislation restricts nearly every method of voting overwhelmingly used by voters of color in 2020: It limits early voting and ballot drop boxes, curbs how absentee ballots can be distributed and who can vote by mail, and bans drive-thru voting. While the provisions of SB 1 will hinder the ability of all Texans to vote, these new restrictions intentionally and disproportionately impact communities of color.

“Texas’s new voting restrictions targeting voters of color are an affront to our democracy,” said Neil Steiner, partner with Dechert LLP. “We remain committed to ensuring that all eligible voters have a true opportunity to participate in our elections by casting a ballot safely, securely and conveniently, with confidence that their votes will be counted.”

I have only given a brief glance to each of these lawsuits – as you know, I Am Not A Lawyer, I just occasionally try to interpret lawyer-y things on the Internet for other non-lawyers. All of them are quite long and will take me some time to try to understand. I do not offhand know why this one was filed in state court, or why that might be a more promising avenue for redress. That has been a successful tactic in some other states, mostly but not entirely for the battle against partisan gerrymandering, but as far as I know it has not been used in this context here before, other than the unsuccessful challenges to Texas’ age restrictions for voting by mail in the runup to the 2020 election. It’s worth a shot – let a thousand flowers bloom and all that – but I cannot articulate a reason why this way and not that way. If someone else can, I’d love to hear it. I will make an effort to read through these documents and try to answer that myself, but you know how that goes. The Current, the Texas Signal, and the Chron have more.

Voter suppression bill passes out of House committee

Here we go again.

A Texas House committee on Monday advanced the GOP-backed voting restrictions bill that first prompted Democrats to stall legislative work during a weekslong quorum break.

The 9-5 party-line vote on the revived legislation, Senate Bill 1, is part of a third bid to enact proposals that would outlaw local efforts to make it easier to vote, ratchet up vote-by-mail rules and bolster protections for partisan poll watchers. It comes just days after the House regained enough Democrats to restart business following a nearly six-week exodus over the minority party’s opposition to the voting legislation.

With the second special legislative session past the halfway mark, the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies opted to replace the Senate’s bill with language from its own bill, House Bill 3. That means the House is essentially starting over with the same exact proposals that instigated a stalemate in the chamber following Democrats’ departure to Washington, D.C., in early July.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican authoring the legislation, indicated he could “foresee” at least some changes to the legislation when it reaches the House floor, though it remains unclear how expansive those amendments could be.

“We’re picking up right where we left off from and so those changes are yet to come,” Murr told the committee.

He had faced questions from Democrats over possible revisions in light of an overnight hearing last month that garnered more than 12 hours of deliberations and public testimony, largely against the legislation, during which there seemed to be some tenuous consensus, including on possibly mandating training for poll watchers.

[…]

As they returned to the Capitol in larger numbers Monday, Democrats indicated they remained optimistic about successfully fighting the bill during the House’s floor debate. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, pointed to Democrats’ ability to cut a deal on what was a pared down version of the bill during the regular legislative session. After the House approved that version in May, lawmakers reshaped the bill behind closed doors so that it swelled beyond what each chamber initially approved.

That reworked version of the bill instigated Democrats’ first quorum break at the end of the regular legislative session; it also served as the blueprint for the current legislation under consideration.

“We had a version of what was SB 7 leave this House in far better shape than it got here,” Anchía said. “We expect to be part of the process just like we were during the regular session.”

I mean, I dunno, maybe. It might take a little of the sting out of the restoration of the quorum, or at least provide the argument for doing so. Maybe this time they’ll at least listen to what all the advocates for the disabled community were saying about how the bill harms them. I just know that Dan Patrick is still going to get a say in what the final bill looks like, and there’s no reason to be optimistic about that. But the train has left the station, and all we can do is try to keep it from going off the rails.

Disabled voters worry about getting screwed by SB7

It won’t be called SB7 in the special session on voter suppression, but you know what I mean.

Texas Republicans have pursued broad efforts this year to ratchet up voting restrictions in the aftermath of a high-turnout election that saw high-profile fights over the state’s voting rules, including the tight eligibility requirements for absentee voting. The 2020 election marked a shift from what was traditionally a tool utilized by the GOP to one that was instead taken up by more Democratic voters. But as the GOP has worked to clamp down on what remains a limited voting option, voters with disabilities — who are among the few groups of Texans eligible to vote by mail — have been caught in the middle of the fight.

Republicans have cast their proposals as “election integrity” measures to protect the voting process from fraud, even though there is no evidence it occurs on a widespread basis. But throughout the spring legislative session, nearly every version of the GOP’s priority voting legislation raised alarms for disability rights advocates who warned lawmakers they would likely run afoul of federal protections for disabled voters.

Texas offers two avenues to voting most helpful for people with disabilities. If they’re unable to vote in person without needing assistance or injuring their health, they can request a mail-in ballot. If they want to vote in person but need assistance, they can ask someone to accompany them to a polling place to help them through the voting process.

Under Republican proposals that are expected to be reconsidered this month, both of those paths might be further constricted.

In the Senate, Republicans wanted to require proof of a condition or illness, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor’s note, before disabled voters can receive mail-in ballots for every election in a calendar year. Under current law, voters need only attest that they have a disability that qualifies them for a mail-in ballot.

That proposed change was eventually pulled down, but Republican senators moved forward with a bill that would have increased the likelihood that people with disabilities would be cast as suspect voters if they used other legal accommodations, like having assistance at the polling place.

The GOP bill would have allowed partisan poll watchers to video record voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll watchers believed the help was unlawful — a change that disability rights advocates argued would wrongly target people with disabilities. For voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities, for example, voting help may require prompting or questioning that could be misconstrued as coercion by a person unfamiliar with that sort of assistance.

Although voters can select anyone to help them as long as they’re not an employer or union leader, House Republicans attempted to set up new rules for those helping voters, including a requirement to disclose and document the reason the voter needed assistance, even if for medical reasons.

At multiple points during the session, Republicans said they tweaked some of those proposals in response to concerns from disability rights advocates. But when the final version of the legislation emerged from backroom negotiations just before the end of the regular session, it included unwelcome changes to redefine what constitutes a disability under state election law, as well as new identification requirements for voting by mail that advocates said lacked clarity.

“Our voices weren’t being heard at the very end when it was the most important,” said Chase Bearden, the deputy executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

The story opens with an account of one woman who felt the need to cast her mail ballot in person, and the ordeal she endured to do so. It’s worth reading, and reflecting on how much easier it is for some people to vote than it is for others. What happens with the provisions that the disability rights community objected to and had some success stopping in the regular session now that we’re in overtime is unknown. I think the Republicans may at least listen and try to make some accommodations, but if it comes down to them or their base, it’s no contest. At that point it will be a matter of whether litigation over equal access for folks with disabilities will have any better luck in the courts than litigation over claims of racial discrimination. I can’t say I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.

More on the post-quorum break fallout

This Trib story mostly centers on the perspective of the Black legislators during the SB7 fight, and it’s a good read for that, but I want to focus on this bit here:

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

While the legislation in the Senate partly targeted Harris County, SB 7 carried the potential to alter the voting process across the state. Beyond banning extended early voting hours, it enhanced the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, set new rules for removing people from the voter rolls and further tightened vote-by-mail rules. In early May, lawmakers in the House negotiated a significantly slimmed down version of the bill that was narrower in scope and included a series of Democratic amendments. In recent days, some Democrats have indicated that version wouldn’t have prompted a walkout, though they wouldn’t have supported it.

Tension around the bill escalated in its last 48 hours through the Capitol as Republicans ironed out the differences in both chamber’s versions, choosing to include significant portions of the Senate’s more expansive version and dropping in a series of new provisions behind closed doors. The bill doubled in size to include new ID requirements for absentee voters and a higher standard for who could qualify to vote by mail based on a disability. Much of Democrats’ ire fell on a new rule mandating that early voting on Sunday couldn’t start until 1 p.m., which they saw as an unjustified attack on “souls to the polls” efforts churches use to turn out Black voters.

Republicans defended the additions as a standard part of the negotiation process, noting that some of them were pulled from other bills passed by the Senate or generally discussed by the chamber.

But the changes were revealed to the full Senate and House less than 48 hours before the deadline to approve the bill, setting off frustrations among Democrats over the lack of time to fully review the legislation. To keep the bill out of range of a filibuster, Senate Republicans used their majority to suspend their own rules and take up the final bill a day earlier than the rules required. Democrats said a resolution laying out many of the last-minute additions to the bill wasn’t presented to them until just before they were supposed to take it up.

In the House, the final bill was so hastily put together that state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who was ushering it through the chamber, said it left out a Democratic initiative he had promised to keep in. The report also misspelled the word equal as “egual.”

“It seemed like the fix was in from the beginning,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said at a press conference early Sunday. “From the beginning, there was no interest in hearing how these measures would impact people of color.”

The description of how things were so rushed raises again a point I made in this post, which is why it took SB7 so long to get to a final vote. Look at the legislative history. The conference committee was appointed on May 19, and it took until May 30 for the final bill to appear, which kicked off the Senate suspending their rules and the final showdown in the House. Why did it take so long? Maybe the House committee members were trying to defend the Democratic amendments, but if so they ultimately did a lousy job of it. A whole lot of new stuff was added, but it seems to me that was mostly language taken from other bills that didn’t come to a vote. None of this should have taken so long, and yet it did. My theory, which so far no one else has even brought up (that I know of), is that the Republicans wanted to do this at the last minute, over the holiday weekend, because it limited the amount of attention they’d face as it was happening. I could be wrong about this – maybe they really couldn’t get their act together in time – and it surely didn’t work out the way they wanted, but until someone demonstrates otherwise, this is the reason I believe for why things unfolded as they did.

Of related interest:

A last-minute addition to the final version of Senate Bill 7, negotiated behind closed doors, set a new window for early voting on Sundays, limiting it to 1 to 9 p.m. Democrats and voting rights advocates said GOP lawmakers were targeting “souls to the polls,” the longtime practice by Black congregations that encourages members to go vote after Sunday morning services.

In an interview Tuesday with NPR, one of the negotiators, Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, said the 1 p.m. start time was an error and that it should have been 11 a.m. Despite his claim, no Republicans raised an issue with the start time during final debate over the bill, and one of them even defended it.

Clardy told NPR that the Sunday start time was “one of the things I look forward to fixing the most” in a special session.

“That was not intended to be reduced,” Clardy said. “I think there was a — call it a mistake if you want to — what should have been 11 was actually printed up as 1.”

Lawmakers are set to revisit the legislation in a yet-to-be-called special session after Democrats staged a walkout late Sunday night that blocked passage of SB 7 in the regular session, which ended Monday. In a Texas Tribune interview later Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was unaware of the specific mistake that Clardy was referring to but that he had heard there “clerical errors” with the final version of SB 7 and that he would be open to “making modifications” to the Sunday voting rules.

After Clardy’s interview with NPR, another GOP negotiator and the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, said that what Clardy said was true and that lawmakers intended to fix the start time in a special session.

Despite the new claims that the 1 p.m. start time was a mistake, Republicans did not flag it as an error in debate over the final version of SB 7 this weekend. In the Senate, SB 7’s author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, stood by the start time under Democratic questioning late Saturday night.

“Those election workers want to go to church, too,” Hughes said. “And so that’s why it says 1 p.m. [and] no later than 9 p.m. You can make Sunday service and go after that.”

When Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, pressed Hughes on that justification, Hughes admitted it wasn’t based on conversations with election workers but suggested that “souls to the polls” efforts promoted voting after the lunch hour.

“You can correct me, but souls to the polls — I thought we went to church and ate lunch and then voted,” Hughes said.

When the House moved Sunday night to pass SB 7, Cain noted that it did not outlaw voting initiatives “such as souls at the polls.”

Asked about Clardy’s comments Tuesday, Hughes said the “intent was to extend the Sunday voting hours” and that lawmakers would “make this clear in the special session.”

I mean, come on. The Republicans fully intended to limit Sunday voting to after 1 PM. What they’re saying now is one part PR, one part making a minor concession to try to appear reasonable, and one part trying to make the inevitable lawsuit a little harder to prosecute. Come up with better rationalizations, guys.

And then there’s this.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said Tuesday he has concerns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent vow to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Legislature, citing how the move to block such pay could impact staffers and legislative agencies.

“I understand the frustration the governor has in [lawmakers] not passing those emergency items — they were priorities of the governor, they were priorities of mine, priorities of many members of the Legislature,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “My only concern is how it impacts staff, especially those who live here in Austin, which is not an inexpensive place to live and raise your family and children.”

[…]

Phelan also said he thinks that, under the Constitution, lawmakers would still have to be paid even if Abbott carried out his veto. Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

In an interview with the Tribune later Tuesday, Abbott insisted he still plans to veto that part of the budget and said that if Phelan is “concerned about it, he needs to do something about it.”

“He has a role to play here,” Abbott said. “He’s not some outside viewer. He’s a participant, and he needs to step up and get the job done.”

The governor has said he will summon the Legislature back to Austin for an overtime round to pass the legislation, though he has not yet specified when he plans to do so. Lawmakers are already expected to return this fall for a special session to redraw the state’s political maps.

Phelan said if Abbott carries out the veto, which he has until June 20 to do, lawmakers could be back for an earlier-than-anticipated overtime round to deal with the issue, since the budget involved covers the fiscal year starting Sept. 1.

The speaker also said he had concerns about how the move could impact legislative agencies such as the Legislative Budget Board, which are also funded by Article X of the budget.

“They weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum,” Phelan said.

Ever watch a movie that has an evil overlord who expresses his displeasure at some hapless minion who has failed him by murdering some other hapless minion? (See item #45 on that list.) That’s what this reminds me of. A whole lot of innocent civil servants may have their pay cut off because Abbott has his nose out of joint. Is that leadership or what?

The House is working on the omnibus voter suppression bill.

They started last night, and who knows when they may finish. If it comes to a vote, I expect this Trib story will be updated to reflect it. One of the justifications given by Republicans for banning all-night voting hours is that “nothing good happens after midnight”. In this one specific instance, I would agree.

If it doesn’t come to a vote, you can thank Democrats and their ability to wield the rulebook.

Hoping for the best. We should know by the time we wake up. I’ll add an update when we do.

Meanwhile, there was another dose of poison in SB7 that I hadn’t mentioned before:

Despite no evidence of substantial voter fraud in Texas, Republicans are preparing to pass sweeping voting legislation with new provisions that make it easier to overturn an election in which fraudulent votes are suspected and to lower the standard for proving fraud in criminal court.

The burden of proof for voter fraud charges in Texas is “clear and convincing evidence.” The bill would change that standard to “preponderance of the evidence.”

A related measure would allow a judge to overturn an election if the total number of ballots found to be fraudulent exceeds the margin of victory. In such cases, a judge could “declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.”

“If you don’t have to show that they would have made a difference, then even ‘illegal votes’ or ‘fraudulent votes’ for your side get factored into that equation,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “This is just a perpetuation of the Big Lie, and as we’ve seen throughout the nation, this is a further weakening of the institutional strength of our democracy.”

The new provisions are last-minute additions to Senate Bill 7, legislation that has drawn the ire of Democratic and civil rights groups that have called it voter suppression since its first draft. The final version of the bill hadn’t been posted online as of early Friday evening — and was not made available to the public — but the Houston Chronicle obtained a copy.

Nothing says “election integrity” like making it easier for the loser of an election to get a judge to throw out the result of that election.

And nothing is certain but death, taxes, and litigation over this abomination of a bill if it passes.

If the bill passes the state House of Representatives and is signed by Gov. Greg Abbott—both of which are expected—the Texas chapter of the NAACP will immediately file a lawsuit against it, chapter President Gary Bledsoe said at a news conference Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Morning News reports.

The bill would ban drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, both of which were used extensively last year in and around Houston, according to the New York TimesAmong its many restrictions, the bill would limit voting by mail for people with a disability, add new ID requirements for mail-in voting, and make it a felony for election officials to send mail-in ballots to voters who did not request them. And it would set limits on early-voting hours, such as requiring polls to open at 1 p.m., not 9 a.m., on Sundays—which could impact popular “Souls to the Polls” held by many Black churches, the Morning News notes.

As it happens, early voting hours in Harris County were 1 PM to 6 PM for Sundays, at least before 2020. I imagine that was more out of tradition than anything else, and there may have been some issues with getting enough poll workers for the Sunday-morning-go-to-church hours, but that is a surmountable challenge and there’s no real reason beyond that. As Sen. Royce West noted during the debate over SB7, we can now buy booze on Sundays starting at 10 AM. Why can’t we vote earlier than 1 PM? (Spoiler alert: We all know the reason for that.)

Anyway. As I sign off, the status of SB7 in the House is unknown. Look for an update below if you didn’t stay up all night following the action live or on Twitter. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: Well, this was dramatic.

The sweeping overhaul of Texas elections and voter access was poised from the beginning of the session to pass into law. It had the backing of Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature. It had support from the governor.

Democrats who opposed the bill, chiding it as a naked attempt of voter suppression, were simply outnumbered.

But on Sunday night, with an hour left for the Legislature to give final approval to the bill, Democrats staged a walkout, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a text message to other Democrats obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Senate Bill 7, a Republican priority bill, is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process. It would create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options like drive-thru voting.

Democrats had argued the bill would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans called the bill an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud.

Debate on Senate Bill 7 had extended over several hours Sunday as the Texas House neared a midnight cutoff to give final approval to legislation before it could head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk to be signed into law.

In between their speeches opposing the bill, Democrats seemed to be trickling off the floor throughout the night, a number of their desks appearing empty. During an earlier vote to adopt a resolution allowing last-minute additions to the bill, just 35 of 67 Democrats appeared to cast votes. Around 10:30 p.m., the remaining Democrats were seen walking out of the chamber.

Their absence left the House without a quorum — which requires two-thirds of the 150 House members to be present — needed to take a vote.

By 11:15 p.m. about 30 Democrats could be seen arriving at a Baptist church about 2 miles away from the Capitol in East Austin.

The location for Democrats’ reunion appeared to be a nod at a last-minute addition to the expansive bill that set a new restriction on early voting hours on Sundays, limiting voting from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Over the last two days, Democrats had derided the addition — dropped in during behind-closed-door negotiations — raising concerns that change would hamper “souls to the polls” efforts meant to turn out voters, particularly Black voters, after church services.

Standing outside the church, Democrats said the walkout came only after it appeared Democrats’ plan to run out the clock on the House floor with speeches wasn’t going to work because Republicans had the votes to use a procedural move to cut off debate and force a final vote on the legislation.

“We saw that coming,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “We’ve used all the tools in our toolbox to fight this bill. And tonight we pulled out that last one.”

With about an hour left before the midnight deadline, House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged the lost quorum and adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday morning. Midnight was the cutoff for the House and Senate to sign off on the final versions of bills that have been negotiated during conference committees.

A couple of things to note here. One is that this is almost certainly a temporary victory. There’s going to be at least one special session already for redistricting, and so this will be on that session’s agenda or there will be another special session, possibly right away, just for this. We know that this is a top Republican priority and they are not going to just accept defeat, in the same way that they are not accepting Trump’s loss in 2020. They have the power to try again and they have the numbers to make it happen.

But the only reason the Republicans are in this position in the first place is because it took them so long to produce the final version of SB7. They had to suspend their own rules in the Senate to bring the bill to the floor for a vote there on Saturday because they were running out of time. The quorum break happened at 10:30 last night – I actually saw a tweet or two to that effect before I went to bed – which meant they were down to the last 90 minutes of available time. You wait till the last minute, things can happen, you know?

I had been wondering why this obvious priority of theirs had been seemingly stuck in conference committee for so long. Surely the Democratic amendments that had watered down some of the more stringent provisions that were later reinstated didn’t have enough supporters in the committee to make this difficult. My thinking was that the Republicans were sitting on this bill, which by now was as bad as the original SB7 that had begun to draw strong criticism from the business world, precisely because they wanted to sneak it through over the holiday weekend, when fewer people would be paying attention. It’s the explanation that makes the most sense to me, because they had to know that the Democrats would do everything they could to make them miss the deadline. Why risk that if you didn’t have to? They had full control over the schedule. Cover of darkness is the best explanation. And it deservedly blew up in their faces.

As noted, they’ll get their second shot at this. But now there’s time for everyone to pay attention again, and for the activists to get businesses and other organizations engaged. The Republicans will get their bill but the Democrats bought themselves some time, and gave their base a big feel-good moment. That’s a trade I’ll take.

The final version of the voter suppression bill is out

It’s bad.

Emerging from closed-door negotiations between the Texas House and Senate, a GOP priority bill to enact new restrictions on voting has swelled beyond what each chamber originally passed to limit local control of elections and curtail voting options, and now includes even more voting law changes.

Worked out by a conference committee after the two chambers passed substantially different pieces of legislation, a draft of the final version of Senate Bill 7 takes from both iterations to cut back early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting and further clamp down on voting-by-mail rules. It also now includes various additional rule changes that weren’t part of each chamber’s previous debate on the bill. Lawmakers are expected to formally sign off on the agreement in the next day and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature before it becomes law.

The draft of the final bill keeps in its crosshairs initiatives used by Harris County during last fall’s general election — such as a day of 24-hour early voting and voting sites that allowed voters to cast ballots from their cars — that proved particularly popular among voters of color. But the legislation will also block local efforts to expand voting options across the state.

[…]

The bill has been negotiated over the last week out of the public eye after the House slimmed down the bill and swapped out all of the Senate’s proposals with language from a different House bill that was narrower in scope. But a draft of the final version of SB 7 ultimately brought back many proposals from the Senate’s more expansive version, including the ban on drive-thru voting.

The legislation requires more counties to offer at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the last week of early voting, but sets a new window of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for voting. This would directly preempt Harris County’s 24-hour voting, which it planned to keep for future elections. It would also slightly shorten the extra hours other large counties offered in the last election by keeping their polling places open until 10 p.m. — three hours past the usual 7 p.m. closing time — for at least a few days.

The draft also sets a new window for early voting on Sundays, limiting it from 1 to 9 p.m.

The SB 7 draft also makes it a state jail felony for local officials to proactively send mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them. This is another response to Harris County, where officials attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year. Other Texas counties sent applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Although those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, mailing unrequested applications to them in the future would also be banned.

Counties would also be prohibited from using public funds “to facilitate” the unsolicited distribution of ballot applications by third parties, which would keep them from also providing applications to local groups helping to get out the vote. Political parties would still be free to send unsolicited applications on their own dime — a practice regularly employed by both Republicans and Democrats.

The final version of the bill further tightens voting-by-mail rules by establishing a new requirement for voters requesting a ballot to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, if they have one. That language comes from separate Republican bills that failed to pass on their own.

Voters will also be required to include that information on the return envelopes containing their ballots for their votes to be counted.

Beyond its new restrictions on voting rules, the SB 7 draft expands the freedoms of partisan poll watchers. Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers. SB 7 would entitle them to be “near enough to see and hear” the election activity. The draft also adds language to the Texas Election Code to allow them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out a ballot.

Provisions dropped by the conference committee include a controversial measure that would’ve allowed poll watchers to record voters receiving assistance filling out their ballots if the poll watcher “reasonably believes” the help is unlawful. That change had raised particular concerns about the possible intimidation of voters who speak languages other than English and voters with disabilities who would be more likely to receive help to vote.

So all the work done by Democrats to make the bill less bad was undone. The restrictions on voting locations were taken out, which is a good thing, but there’s not much beyond that. Here’s a good summary:

Read through the thread, and get ready for what’s coming. I have no idea if there’s any prospect for a point of order or Senate filibuster to kill this, and I suspect that even is such a thing did happen Greg Abbott would give Dan Patrick the special session he’s craving anyway. There will be litigation, and we’ll just have to see how that goes. In the end, it will come down to what it always comes down to: We have to win enough elections, now not jut to stop crap like this, but to undo it. It’s going to be a huge job, and it will take a lot of time. But what other choice do we have?

UPDATE: No time wasted in the Senate.

In the course of several hours Saturday and early Sunday, Senate Republicans hurtled to move forward on a sweeping voting bill negotiated behind closed doors where it doubled in length and grew to include voting law changes that weren’t previously considered.

Over Democrats’ objections, they suspended the chamber’s own rules to narrow the window lawmakers had to review the new massive piece of legislation before giving it final approval ahead of the end of Monday’s end to the legislative session. This culminated in an overnight debate and party line vote early Sunday to sign off on a raft of new voting restrictions and changes to elections and get it one step closer to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 7, the GOP’s priority voting bill, emerged Saturday from a conference committee as an expansive bill that would touch nearly the entire voting process, including provisions to limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further tighten voting-by-mail, among several other provisions. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber’s version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes, including a new ID requirement for mail-in ballots, that weren’t part of previous debates on the bill.

But instead of giving senators the 24 hours required under the chamber’s rules to go over the committee’s report, including those new additions, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, moved to ignore that mandate so the Senate could debate and eventually vote on the final version of the bill just hours after it was filed.

Around 6 p.m. Saturday, Hughes acknowledged the Senate would consider the report “earlier than usual” but tried to argue he was giving senators “more time” by alerting them about his plan to debate the final version of SB 7 at 10 p.m.

“That’s a nice spin,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, shot back.

Remember when complaints about the original bill’s voter suppression tactics were met by rebuttals that we needed to “read the bill”? Yeah.

SOS Hughs resigns

In retrospect, I should have seen this coming.

Ruth Hughs

Texas Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs announced Friday she will step down from her post as the state’s top elections official, less than two years into her term.

The decision comes after Republicans in the Senate failed to take up her nomination, which was required for her to remain in the role past this legislative session. Hughs oversaw the presidential election last year, in which Harris County officials implemented several alternative voting measures, including 24-hour voting and voting by drive-thru.

Republicans have vilified the county’s efforts as part of their ongoing effort to discredit the election results, and have put forth legislation this session to crack down on what they see as opportunities for fraud at the ballot box. Democrats and voting rights advocates have called the effort voter suppression.

Hughs is the second Texas Secretary of State in a row to leave after the Senate did not confirm an appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott.

[…]

The departure, effective at the end of this month, leaves a hole for the Republican governor to fill as he faces reelection to a third term late next year. Under state law, legislators won’t vet Abbott’s next choice until they reconvene again in 2023.

SOS Hughs’ statement about her resignation is here. She was in many ways the opposite of the incompetent partisan hack David Whitley, who resigned almot exactly two years ago following his botched voter registration purge attempt.

It was easy to forget about Hughs because she didn’t make a lot of news. What did her in was that her office approved the various election innovations that Harris County (and others) put forth last year in response to COVID. For all of the caterwauling and litigation over drop boxes and drive-through voting and overnight hours and sending absentee ballot applications to voters who hadn’t specifically requested them, there was nothing in existing law that said those things were illegal. We all know what happened next, and so here we are.

The later version of the Chron story makes this more clear.

While Republicans have not publicly expressed any lack of faith in Hughs, Democrats point to her office’s assertion that Texas had a “smooth and secure” election in 2020.

“Apparently, that wasn’t what leadership wanted to hear,” said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a tweet on Saturday.

The “smooth and secure” line became a highlight of the Democrats’ fight against a slew of Republican voting restrictions in the ongoing legislative session.

The Republican-led Senate is backing voting restrictions, saying they are needed to prevent fraud at the polls, despite no evidence of widespread cheating.

In pushing against the legislation, Democrats pointed to testimony from one of Hughs’ top deputies, Keith Ingram, director of elections.

“In spite of all the circumstances, Texas had an election that was smooth and secure,” Ingram told lawmakers in March, referring to the effect of the pandemic. “Texans can be justifiably proud of the hard work and creativity shown by local county elections officials.”

[…]

Chris Hollins, the former Harris County Clerk, said it was clear to him that Hughs’ office was under “intense partisan pressure” in 2020. Hollins said the county generally worked well with the secretary of state’s office in the 2020 elections until legal battles began over the county’s voting expansions. That’s when communication between the two offices abruptly ended, he said.

“They were supportive of us until, it seemed like, somebody of power put in a call to the governor’s office and told them not to be supportive of us,” said Hollins, now a vice chair for finance with the Democratic Party.

Across the country, “secretaries of state and election administrators have stood up and said ‘no, this was a free and fair and secure election,’ but that fact flies in the face of this entire lie that they’re trying to build, so folks who stand behind those facts have to go,” Hollins said.

“On the ultimate question of was this a safe and secure election, they said yes,” he said. “Right now the Republican Party line is no. So if you don’t bend to that, if you don’t bend to this ‘Big Lie,’ you are ousted.”

I had been wondering if Hughs had come under pressure last year to reject what Harris County (and again, other counties as well) was doing or if this is all an after-the-fact reaction to her office’s actions. Seems likely it’s the former, but maybe once she’s free of her constraints she’ll let someone know. I hope a reporter or two tries to chase that down regardless. Whatever the case, it doesn’t speak well for the state of our state’s democracy. In theory, if the massive voter suppression bill passes, a lot of this might not matter because so many of these previously un-quantified actions have now been explicitly outlawed, which leaves a lot less room for counties to get clever and SOSes to give them that latitude. But there are always new frontiers to explore, and I expect the big urban counties are not going to go quietly. The next SOS will have an opportunity to put a thumb on the scale – and that’s before we consider future voter roll “cleanup” efforts – and I would expect the next Abbott appointee to be fully versed on that. Get ready to have these fights all over again, this time with more resistance. The Trib has more.

GHP finally says something about voter suppression

Weak.

After days of external pressure from Harris County politicians and internal calls from board members to speak out against voting bills in the Texas Legislature, the Greater Houston Partnership on Thursday evening issued a broad condemnation of efforts to restrict ballot access.

It made no mention of the legislation.

Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president, said the statement came out of a listening session Thursday morning with more than 80 board members to discuss the bills. The two main proposals, Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, would limit early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, lessen restrictions on poll watchers and streamline the process to purge voters from rolls.

[…]

Harvey said 15 members spoke during the one-hour discussion, and “it remains clear there is no consensus on our board to take a formal position on the legislation itself.”

He said a clear consensus did support the new statement, which acknowledges that Texas and the United States have historically suppressed the vote of certain groups, including women, the poor, residents of color and those with disabilities. The partnership, the statement reads in part:

“Believes voter suppression is wrong and stands firmly against it in any form.

“Believes impediments to voting should be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

“Believes the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and that all citizens should have ready and easy access to vote.”

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner and [County Judge Lina] Hidalgo said Friday the partnership’s new statement would not change their decision. The mayor said he was disappointed the House had advanced its version of SB 7 overnight.

“More than 350 of these voter restriction, suppression bills have been filed across the country, trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Turner said. “These bills were filed because a lot of people voted in the last presidential election, and specifically more people of color.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the full statement. I’m trying to understand what it is that allows the GHP to (finally, at long last) make these very basic statements about the core tenets of democracy, but forbids them from connecting them in any way to the legislation that is on a glide path to Greg Abbott’s desk. What, other than a critical mass of Republican members who accept at face value the ludicrous and widely disputed claims by Republican legislators that SB7 and HB6 and the various other smaller bills won’t contradict these things they say they believe, is stopping them? Does Bob Harvey not understand why so many people are mad at the GHP for not taking a stand, or is he gritting his teeth and picturing himself in one of those “wanna get away?” Southwest Airlines ads? I have no idea. All I know is that this is the equivalent of turning in a term paper that’s two days late and that you wrote in an hour having done no research before handing it to the professor and hoping it’s enough to keep you from flunking the class.

House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

But don’t bother asking what’s in the bill, because it’s going to change and we won’t know what’s in the real bill until it’s time for a final vote in both chambers.

As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron had a story over the weekend that went into detail about the two bills (before HB6 was rewritten in committee) and how much of them was an effort to punish Harris County for its “sins” in 2020. That’s mostly useful now as a reminder for when the conference committee version emerges. I have little hope that the Democratic amendments will make it into that version, but at least they tried. The one thing we can be sure about is that much like with Florida, there will be lawsuits over this. And we damn well better make it an issue in the 2022 election. Reform Austin has more.

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Thursday the county will not consider becoming a member of the Greater Houston Partnership following the group’s silence on bills in the state Legislature that he called “suppressive pieces of legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow era tactics prior to the Civil Rights era.”

George’s statement came a day after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced they no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership due to the group’s silence. George said he supported the pair’s rebuke; all three are Democrats.

“The implications of silence on this issue are too consequential and that Hidalgo and Turner have decided to make that clear is admirable,” George said. “Our County had been considering joining the Greater Houston Partnership for some time now, but following their silence on this, we will no longer consider becoming a member organization. Now is the time to take a stand, the eyes of history are indeed upon us now.”

In his statement, George noted the changes that the county made to make voting more accessible ahead of the 2020 election, including the extension of voting hours, making the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land a mega-voting site and creating drive-thru voting for individuals unable to walk into a center.

See here, here, and here for some background. The GHP had a simple test before it, to affirm the basic principle that our democracy works best when voting is easy and accessible to all and that the bills being pushed in the Legislature are antithetical to that, as well as based on a lie. It failed. There should be consequences for that, and there are. Any diminution of their stature is on them.

Turner and Hidalgo rebuke GHP over voting rights failure

Good.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership because of the chamber group’s silence on bills in the Texas Legislature that the pair say will add unacceptable obstacles to voting.

The move, which the pair announced at a news conference, was a rare public rebuke of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, which typically has enjoyed a close relationship with Houston-area politicians. Hidalgo’s comments amounted to an accusation of cowardice, echoing comments a prominent Black member of the partnership board made a day earlier.

“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” Hidalgo said. “We do not feel comfortable letting them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time.”

Hidalgo said she would announce a new venue for her annual address at a later date. Turner said he would instead have Houston First Corporation host his state of the city speech.

“I think it’s important this year for me to find that venue that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values we hold so dear,” Turner said.

[…]

The partnership issued a statement saying it regretted Hidalgo and Turner had canceled the annual events, which its members “greatly enjoy.” The statement said there is no consensus among members on the voting bills, which prevents the group from taking a stance on the legislation.

Board members told the Chronicle, however, that GHP leadership had declined to hold a special meeting at which a consensus could be reached.

Hidalgo also questioned the partnership’s commitment to fighting racial injustice the group made after the killing of Houston native George Floyd last summer, given its inaction on the voting bills.

“The blunt truth is, you cannot stand for that and at the same time say silent on voter suppression,” Hidalgo said. “The right to vote is at the core of all of those rights.”

See here and here for some background. This is entirely appropriate and justified, and I hope it leaves a mark. You can’t proclaim yourself an icon of good government and civic engagement while sitting this out, and Judge Hidalgo is exactly right to question their self-proclaimed commitment to racial justice. (If you need a better understanding of why, read this Texas Civil Rights Project report on the sordid and racist history of poll watchers, which SB7 and HB6 and other bills are set to unleash.) This is an attack on democracy for partisan gain and based on a brazen lie, and if the GHP can’t or won’t recognize that then it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Good for Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner, and shame on the GHP. The Press has more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board piles on.

Businesses finally offer some real resistance to voter suppression

About time.

With less than a month left in the legislative session — and Texas Republicans split on which package of proposals might cross the finish line — Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Unilever, Patagonia and two dozen other companies are urging state lawmakers not to pass new restrictions on voting.

In the biggest pushback so far by business against the GOP’s legislative bid to ratchet up the state’s already restrictive voting rules, national companies joined in a statement voicing their opposition Tuesday with local businesses and several local chambers of commerce representing LGBTQ, Hispanic and Black members of the business community.

“We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the businesses wrote in their letter. “We urge business and civic leaders to join us as we call upon lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality. By supporting a stronger trustworthy democracy, we will elevate our economy.”

The statement does not address specific legislation, but comes as Texas Republicans press forward with bills in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud and warnings from voting rights advocates and lawyers that many of them would be disproportionately harmful to voters of color.

Following the recent passage of new restrictions in Georgia, major corporations began responding to criticism about staying out of that fight by largely coalescing around joint statements that generally stated their opposition to election changes that make it harder to vote.

[…]

As the fight over new restrictions moved from Georgia to Texas, the state’s Republican leadership moved to quickly condemn businesses scrutinizing the proposals under consideration during the 2021 legislative session.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who declared “election integrity” a legislative priority — backed out of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and said he would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over its decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there. Calling it “absolutely ridiculous” for the MLB to take a position on the Georgia law, Abbott in a Fox News television interview indicated he was sending a message to Texas-based companies and others eyeing a move to the state — and the financial incentives that are often used to lure them.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick angrily targeted American Airlines during a press conference in which he described those raising concerns of voter suppression a “nest of liars.”

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said in a separate statement responding to American Airlines’ opposition to SB 7.

In the Texas House, the possible retribution for companies that have come out against the bills has been mostly symbolic so far. Republicans sought to inject the dispute into the chamber’s consideration of the state’s massive budget bill last month, offering amendments to withhold state funds from businesses that publicly opposed legislation “related to election integrity.” Those proposals were ultimately kept off the budget.

Those threats — coupled with Republican demands for corporations to stay out of policy disputes outside of their business realm — did not deter the companies that signed onto the letter. Patagonia has even been sharing its own analysis of “voter suppression legislation,” which includes SB 7, HB 6 and several other bills, with other companies considering opposing proposed restrictions.

“Companies need to do more than solely focus on profit … and empowering their communities can be really good for business and thats something we’re seeing that’s a good trend,” said Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for Patagonia. “I hope more companies speak out on these issues, mostly because I think its important to have companies step up where government seems to be falling short.”

I certainly approve of that. See here for the previous update, here for a copy of the letter, and here for the Fair Elections Texas website, which is pretty bare-bones for now. I very much appreciate their stance, and I hope that they get a lot of reinforcements soon.

Case in point

A group of 175 business leaders sent a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan on Tuesday morning opposing several key provisions of the voting bills being debated in the Texas Legislature, which they said would add unacceptable barriers for Houston residents to cast a ballot.

They included 10 members of the Greater Houston Partnership board, whose efforts to push the region’s largest chamber of commerce to condemn the bills were rebuffed by the group’s president. With the partnership silent on legislation Harris County leaders say will make voting more difficult for everyone and discriminate against people of color, the members said they could not stomach sitting on the sidelines.

“When you have an organization that is supposed to reflect the diversity and inclusion, and has taken steps on its website to discuss racial equality but does not have the spine to bring forth to a vote an issue that is as important as this, we felt we had no choice but to bring it in a public forum,” said Gerald Smith, who also sits on the partnership’s executive committee.

The letter takes Phelan up on the speaker’s invitation last month for business leaders to flag provisions in the bills, including House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, that could add obstacles to voting.

It raises alarm over provisions that would move polling sites away from Houston’s urban core, limit voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, remove restrictions on poll watchers, streamline voter roll purges and add a host of criminal penalties for poll workers and local election officials found in violation of the Texas Election Code.

“These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston,” the letter states. “Especially as we aim to attract major conferences and sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, voter suppression is a stain on our reputation that could cost our region millions of dollars.”

[…]

The influential Greater Houston Partnership, founded in 1840, seeks to speak for the 12-county region’s business community. It regularly lobbies the Legislature on policy issues, and in the past has bucked state leaders on controversial issues, including the group’s opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in 2017 that helped torpedo a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The partnership also made a commitment last summer to opposing racial injustice, issuing a statement recognizing its members “have an opportunity as Houstonians to lead the way in reforming broken systems, building up communities, offering support and removing barriers.”

For some GHP members, the organization’s inaction on SB 7 and HB 6 calls into question how serious that commitment was. A proposal that would require a roughly equal number of polling sites per state House district, the Harris County election administrator estimates, would result in fewer sites in urban areas with higher Black and Latino populations and more in suburban communities with a higher share of white voters.

As the bills began to take shape in Austin, several board members wished to revise the partnership’s April 1 broad statement on voting rights, which called on the Legislature to balance election security with ensuring equal ballot access.

GHP President Bob Harvey allotted 15 minutes to the topic at the group’s April 21 regular meeting, though the discussion ran much longer, said board member Gerald Smith. He said Harvey pledged to schedule a special board meeting to resolve the issue.

See here for some background on that, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for a copy of the letter. These GHP members think the organization is dragging its feet, which at this point seems self-evident. In the end, I still think that at least one of SB7 or HB6 passes, or some combination of them. These are Greg Abbott “emergency” bills, and the seething hordes of the Republican primary electorate will not tolerate anything they perceive to be failure. (Which is one of the reasons we’re in this spot to begin with.) At the very least, time is running out to get on the right side of this issue while it still matters. Do the right thing here, GHP. NBC News and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: I drafted this on Tuesday, didn’t run it on Wednesday, then Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo announced they would no longer hold events at the GHP in response to that organization’s pusillanimous response. I’ll have a separate post on that tomorrow. Too much news, y’all.

Briscoe Cain’s latest follies

This guy, I swear.

After an early misfire, House Republicans on Thursday succeeded in pushing their proposed restrictions on voting to the legislative forefront as the Texas Legislature’s 2021 session enters its final sprint.

The House Elections Committee’s Republican majority voted to gut Senate Bill 7, the priority voting bill that has already passed the Senate, and replace the bill’s language with that of House Bill 6, a significantly different voting bill favored by House leadership. That maneuvering will put the Senate on the defensive to resurrect its legislation and likely tee up end-of-session tension between the two chambers over competing visions for which proposed restrictions ultimately make it to the governor’s desk.

As passed in the Senate, SB 7 clamps down on early voting rules and hours, restricts how voters can receive applications to vote by mail and regulates the distribution of polling places in diverse urban counties, among several other provisions in the expansive bill. The legislation passed the Senate with support from the chamber’s Republican majority and was awaiting action in the House.

HB 6, approved by the committee’s Republican majority earlier this month, would restrict the distribution of applications to vote by mail, require people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help in casting their ballot — even if for medical reasons — and enhance protections for partisan poll watchers, including criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers.

On first try, a morning committee meeting descended into chaos when state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the committee’s chair, blindsided his colleagues with a motion to substitute SB 7 with HB 6, which he authored. That effort failed when another GOP lawmaker didn’t vote to follow along after Cain pressed forward, saying there were no objections to adopting the substitute language even as Democrats, shouting at times, continued to object.

The committee reconvened Thursday evening and advanced SB 7 on a 5-4 vote, after rejecting several proposed Democratic amendments.

As things stand now, SB 7 is a duplicate version of HB 6. The Senate can still revive its priorities if the full House approves the rewritten SB 7 and lawmakers from both chambers convene to cut a deal.

[…]

Caught off guard earlier in the day, Democrats on the committee said they were handed the replacement language minutes before they were asked to vote, and repeatedly objected to the move, which would preempt any public hearing by the House on SB 7’s provisions that differ substantially from Cain’s substitute.

“I feel that SB 7 is a significant piece of legislation that we should hold a hearing on it,” said state Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin.

“I agree, but we are doing a committee substitute to match it to House Bill 6, and we’ve already heard a complete hearing on that exact language,” Cain responded. He argued that the committee’s lengthy hearing on HB 6 was “sufficient.”

“These two bills are substantially different — you have said that time and time again in committee. Many times you have said these bills are totally different when somebody compared it to SB 7,” said state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee. “I have to object. This is wrong. We deserve to have a public hearing on this.”

The meeting erupted into chaos as lawmakers spoke over each other and Democrats pushed back on Cain. After adopting the substituted language, Cain then quickly called for a vote so the rewritten bill could head to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote. But he was forced to withdraw his proposal after state Rep. Travis Clardy said he would “pass” and refused to cast a vote. Without the Nacogdoches Republican’s vote — and Democrats on the committee voting against the bill — there weren’t enough votes for it to make it out of the committee.

When lawmakers returned to the committee later Thursday, Clardy fell in line with his Republican colleagues.

The push to replace the Senate’s priority election bill with Cain’s proposals likely serves as an indication of how far apart the House and the Senate are on what changes the Legislature should make to voting this session. Instead of uniting behind identical, or even substantially similar bills, each chamber has moved forward with different measures.

See here and here for some background. I recommend reading Emily Eby’s Twitter thread for the inside look and feel of the chaos that reigned. Briscoe Cain is an idiot, but let’s be clear, the Republicans are not going to let him fail. A voter suppression bill is going to pass, one way or another, because that’s what the Republicans want and they have the numbers to do it. If one of the adults in the room has to hold Briscoe Cain’s hand to make it happen, they will. I don’t quite understand the pissing contest between the House and the Senate – there are differences between SB7 and HB6, but in the end they’re both big voter suppression bills and they both suck – but that’s not my lane. I wish I could envision a scenario where the wheels all fall off and they eventually give up, but I can’t. Some form of one of these bills will pass. The rest is just cosplay.

Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

The Texas/Georgia comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The propagandist’s advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

First major vote suppression bill passes

Nothing’s going to stop them.

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans’ crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year’s election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state’s urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state’s strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation “standardizes and clarifies” voting rules so that “every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state.”

“Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of “election integrity” has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

[…]

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County’s election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

“Knowing that, who are you really targeting?” Alvarado asked.

“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board,” Hughes replied.

See here for the previous update. Note the very careful language Hughes used in his response to Sen. Alvarado. The Republican defense to the eventual lawsuits is that these laws aren’t targeting voters of color in any way. They’re just plain old value-neutral applies-to-everyone restrictions, the kind that (Republican) Supreme Court Justices approve of, and if they happen to have a disparate impact on some voters of color, well, that’s just the price you have to pay to make Republicans feel more secure about their future electoral prospects ensure the integrity of the vote.

It’s the poll watchers provision that is easily the worst of this bill.

Although videotaping in polling locations in Texas is prohibited, under a bill that passed the Texas Senate just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, partisan poll watchers would be allowed to videotape any person voting that they suspect may be doing something unlawful. But poll workers and voters would be barred from recording the poll watchers.

History has shown this is likely going to lead to more Black and Hispanic people being recorded by white poll watchers who believe they are witnessing something suspicious, advocates warn.

“It’s designed to go after minority voters,” said Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP.

Not so, says State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola. He said the recordings by poll watchers will give officials a way to resolve disputes at polling locations especially related to potential voter fraud.

“They are the eyes and ears of the public, and if a dispute does arise about what happened, what was said, what was done, the more evidence we can have the better,” Hughes said of the provision within his Senate Bill 7, which includes a number of measures to restrict voting access in the name of preventing fraud.

But to Black and Hispanic leaders, the legislation is a replay of the voter intimidation from the 1960s and 1970s. After the voting rights acts of the 1960s were passed, Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said law enforcement in some counties in Texas would take pictures of Hispanics and Black voters at polling places and then try to deliver those pictures to their white employers or others in the community to get them in trouble.

“It was a form of voter intimidation then, and that’s what this would be now,” Garcia said.

What makes SB 7 even more dangerous is who it is empowers to make recordings, Bledsoe said.

Poll watchers are volunteers chosen by candidates and parties to observe the election process. They do not undergo background checks and are not subject to any training requirements.

As such, they could quickly become a sort of vigilante force, Bledsoe said. He said many times Republican poll watchers are sent from other parts of the community into Black and Hispanic precincts and may not even be familiar with the neighborhoods where they would be allowed to record people trying to vote.

“This is intimidating as all get out,” he said.

Shortly after midnight Thursday in a marathon hearing, Hughes amended the bill to bar poll watchers from posting the videos on social media or sharing them with others except for the Texas Secretary of State.

If you can’t see the potential for abuse here, I don’t know what to tell you. Others have pointed out that voters who have been the victim of domestic violence would certainly feel intimidated by having a stranger video them. This is giving unvetted people with a motive to cause trouble a lot of power and no accountability. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s not a lot more to say about this that I haven’t already said, so let me reiterate a few things while I can. There’s been more corporate pushback on the Georgia law, but we’re still very short on attention for what’s happening in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country. At this point, merely condemning the suppressionist bills is insufficient. If you actually believe in the importance of voting, then put your money where your mouth is and take action to vote out the officials who are trying to take it away from so many Americans. Senator Hughes is right about one thing – this anti-voting push from him and his fellow Republicans did in fact begin before the 2020 election. All the more reason why the elected officials doing the pushing do not deserve to have the power and responsibility they have been given.

Sen. Borris Miles gave a speech on the floor thanking Sen. Hughes for “waking the beast”, and I do think bills like this will have a galvanizing effect for Democrats and Democratic leaners. As I’ve said before, I think the practical effect of this law will be more negative to the Republican rank and file than perhaps they expect. Democrats took advantage of voting by mail in 2020, but that’s not their usual way of voting, and the restrictions that SB7 imposes, as Campos notes, is going to hurt those who are most used to voting by mail, who are generally Republicans. I believe as much as ever that Democrats should campaign in 2022 on a promise to make it easier and more convenient to vote. This law, to whatever extent it is allowed to be enacted, will hurt, but how much and in what ways remains to be seen. That’s the risk of reacting so forcefully to an anomalous event – it’s easy to go overboard and do things you didn’t really intend to do. We’ll see how it plays out. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: This is a good start.

American Airlines Statement on Texas Voting Legislation

Earlier this morning, the Texas State Senate passed legislation with provisions that limit voting access. To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.

Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and is the foundation of our great country. We value the democratic process and believe every eligible American should be allowed to exercise their right to vote, no matter which political party or candidate they support.

We acknowledge how difficult this is for many who have fought to secure and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder. At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society – not create them.

Via Patrick Svitek, who also posted the super pissy response it drew from one of Abbott’s mouthpieces and from Dan Patrick. More action is needed, but we have to start somewhere.

UPDATE: Also good:

Via the Trib. Keep ’em coming, but don’t forget the need for action.

A bit of business pushback against voter suppression

It’s a start, but much more is needed.

A group of 72 Black business leaders are calling on companies to publicly oppose a series of bills being advanced by Republicans in at least 43 states that could dramatically curb access to the ballot box.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Black corporate executives are rallying around a letter that pushes back on a Georgia law that voting rights advocates have said will make it harder for Black people to vote.

“There is no middle ground here,” Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express and one of the letter’s organizers told the Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

The letter — which urges corporate America to publicly oppose new laws that would restrict the rights of voters — comes after major Atlanta-based corporations, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, failed to formally condemn the bills restricting voting rights.

The letter’s powerhouse group of signers include Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA; Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr., the co-chief executives of Ariel Investments; Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners; and Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for New York City Mayor.

Also among the letter’s long list of supporters were Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner, and Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber.

[…]

While voting rights and advocacy groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, have filed a series of lawsuits against the bill in the wake of its passage, a majority of corporations have remained largely mum on the legislation.

Delta Air Lines CEO came forward and issued a memo on Wednesday calling the final bill “unacceptable,” suggesting that it hinged on the premise of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.

The group of executives stopped short of calling out specific companies for their inaction, but are asking big corporations to dedicate resources to  fighting voting rights restrictions.

The executives are hoping that big companies will help short circuit dozens of similar bills in other states from being signed into law.

Like Texas, for example. Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has sounded the alarm and called for the business community to get involved as well. I unfortunately think it’s already too late – remember, when there was a lot of business resistance to the bathroom bill in 2017 (which the likes of Dan Patrick viewed with contempt), it was underway well before the session began. We’re already pretty far into the process, and there hasn’t been a peep in Texas as yet, other than some progressive groups taking out ads urging businesses to get involved, which is still a couple of steps away from meaningful action. Things are starting to move in Georgia, but of course that’s after their heinous bill has been signed into law. Sometimes it just takes that much longer for the forces that oppose evil to get its act together. It’s still worth the effort, but time is fast running out.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

What might the Lege do to make voting easier, or harder?

I confess, I didn’t read most of this story about the various problems some people had in voting, and the various theories as to what was happening during voting, mostly because it contained way too many quotes from Jared Woodfill. I’m going to focus on one piece of this, and then jump to the question I posed in the title.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In Texas, which was recently ranked 50th in the nation by the Election Law Journal for ease of voting, the stories of disenfranchisement in this election are plentiful, because the hurdles state lawmakers have erected to registering and voting create many chances for the system to fail.

The state GOP leadership has steadfastly resisted modernizing voter registration, including blocking attempts at online registration. Voter ID laws, limits on qualifications for absentee ballots and rigidity in the mechanics of balloting all weed out untold numbers of voters along the way.

“These things will feed into the ability of someone to either participate easily and conveniently and effectively, or for someone to encounter barrier after barrier after barrier and at some point throw up their hands in disgust and quit trying,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the Democracy Fund in Washington, D.C.

It certainly was difficult for East Texas resident Serena Ivie, who had to reeducate herself on the registration process after sitting out elections for 20 years.

Ivie wanted to vote for President Donald Trump because she worried about the direction of the country if he left office. She sent in her voter registration application in early September, she said.

She figured out too late that her registration was never activated, and she still has not gotten an explanation, she said.

Ivie, 49, is angry that the state hasn’t created easy, online registration since the last time she voted.

“I was disappointed that I’d let myself down, and I really felt that I screwed up,” Ivie said. “It’s a huge letdown, and I, in turn, feel like I am letting my country down.”

There really is no good reason why our voter registration process is so antiquated. There is a good reason why the law that controls how voter registration may be done has not been updated in forever, and that’s because the Republicans have opposed it, as we have covered here numerous times. Not all Republicans, to be sure – the bill cited in that post had numerous Republican co-sponsors, but never got a hearing in committee. The difference now is that Republicans have been actively registering voters these days, and as they discovered, it’s harder than it needs to be. There is also now a very limited form of online voter registration available, thanks to a federal lawsuit. These two factors may finally allow for our voter registration laws to be dragged into the 21st century. I wouldn’t bet on it until someone like Greg Abbott announces support for it, but the possibility exists.

Unfortunately, that’s probably about where the potential good news ends. There’s a zero percent chance that any expansion will be made to voting by mail – I’d be more worried about some bills that will attempt to make it harder, or perhaps to define “disability” in a way that would explicitly exclude pandemic-related risk factors. Along the same lines, I expect there to be bills that codify limiting ballot dropoff locations to one per county, and to limit if not outlaw drive-through voting that isn’t part of the already-allowed curbside voting for people with (perhaps more strictly defined) disabilities. Finally, as part of the larger conversation about the role and power of the Governor and the Legislature during a disaster, there may be legislation that codifies the Governor’s ability to do things like extend early voting hours as part of a disaster response. A bill like that doesn’t have to be bad, but it would be easier to make it bad than to make it good.

As far as I’m concerned, the best case scenario here is keeping trash like that from getting passed. Maybe the new Speaker will put his thumb on the scale in a good way, or maybe Republican legislators will have heard from enough voters that they liked the longer early voting period and/or drive-through voting to mess with it, or maybe they’ll just be too damn busy with all of the other business they’ll have to deal with to have time for this. I’m just saying be prepared for some nonsense here. It’s coming, and we need to be ready for it.

UPDATE: Bill pre-filing is now open, and there are numerous election-related bills already, including one that would “prohibit state officers and employees from distributing applications for early voting ballots”. I’m sure you can guess what motivated that. Remember that zillions of bills get filed but only a handful make it through, so don’t draw conclusions from any of this just yet.

A few thoughts about Election 2020 before Tuesday

Just a brain dump, to get this all out there before we find out what happened. Let’s start with this:

After the conclusion of three weeks of early voting, 9.7 million Texans have cast ballots, crushing previous early voting totals in the state and setting Texas on a course for record turnout in this Tuesday’s general election.

At least 9,709,376 voters cast early ballots, according to preliminary final numbers released by the Texas Secretary of State and the counties on Saturday morning. That is 57.3% percent of registered voters, just shy of the overall turnout of 59.4% in 2016 by 2 percentage points.

Of those early votes, 8,738,363 were cast in person; 971,013 were cast by mail.

Early voting, which Gov. Abbott extended by six days this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, has already eclipsed total votes during the 2016 general election, when 8,969,226 Texans voted.

Texas has added 1.8 million registered voters since the 2016 election. Texas has not surpassed 60% turnout of registered voters since the early 1990s.

Harris County, Texas’s most populous county, leads the state with 1.4 million votes cast. Among large counties, Collin County outside of Dallas has the highest early voting turnout with 69%.

As we have discussed before, high turnout is generally more favorable to Democrats, but not universally, and there’s been plenty of activity in heavily Republican counties:

Comal County is like Montgomery County’s little brother, and Guadalupe is pretty Republican, too. That said, it’s important to keep in mind the distinctions between “percentages”, especially when we are talking about increases, and absolute numbers. Comal County cast 62K ballots total in 2016; I don’t know what their early voting numbers were in 2016, but a 26% increase over their final turnout would be close to 80K votes. Harris County has had a *net increase* of over 80K votes so far, with Election Day still to come. A 26% increase in total final turnout in Harris County would mean about 1.67 million total voters, or an increase of about 350K from 2016, and at this point that’s the low end. In short, Harris County is big. Always keep that in mind.

If you go back to the Derek Ryan report from Thursday, when “just” nine million people had voted, the electorate at that point was 52.1% female, and 43.4% male. (Not all people specify their gender on their voter registration.) Assuming that hasn’t radically changed as of Friday, that means that something like 800K more women than men have voted in Texas. (In Harris County, the gender ratio was 55.3 to 44.3, a gap of a bit more than 150K.) Given the greater preference for Joe Biden among women, that could be a factor in how this election turns out.

Now let’s talk about how easy, or not-easy, it was to vote in Texas this year. There’s a lot, but I’ll try to be concise. Let’s start with this:

Maybe bullet points will help.

– I agree – and have said on this blog – that the actual impact of the “one dropoff location” order and rulings is minimal. Hell, I didn’t even know that dropping off mail ballots was a thing you could do until this year. I think it’s fair to say that the number of people who have used this option in the past can be counted on your fingers. I don’t know how many people would have used it this election, but even if we’re talking five figures, it’s on the order of five percent of total turnout. People had plenty of other options available to them, including the Reliant Arena dropoff location (which is in many ways more accessible than the Clerk’s office downtown), the US mail, and voting in person. I have a hard time believing anyone was truly disenfranchised by this.

– But all of that is beside the point. The multiple dropoff locations, all at official County Clerk offices, was consistent with the letter and intent of the law, and the amended order to limit them to one, which came more than two months after Harris County announced its dropoff plan, was an obvious partisan exercise that had no basis or reason other than to make voting less convenient, and to slap down an innovative Democratic County Clerk in a heavily Democratic county. On every level, this was a screw-you to Chris Hollins and Harris County.

– Yet even there, we must acknowledge that Greg Abbott did in fact expand access to voting. That third week of early voting was huge – I’m sure that Allen West and the seething hordes of the Republican base are super pissed about that. Plus, the fact that mail ballots could be dropped off during early voting at all was the result of Abbott’s executive order, the same one that allowed for the extra week of early voting. State law as written only allows mail ballots to be dropped off on Election Day. Abbott expanded that. He weaseled out later on, but he was weaseling on himself

– So one might claim, as John Cornyn did on Twitter, that it can’t be all that hard to vote in Texas, because so many people are doing it this year. But once you get past Abbott’s original executive order – which, you may recall, the State GOP and Harris County GOP, among others, tried to kill via the courts – it was local officials, with Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins as the exemplar, backed by $31 million from the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court – that did all the work to make it easier. And again, Republicans from Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton down to dregs like Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, fought them every step of the way.

– Finally, we have to acknowledge that whatever was done to make voting easier this year, we started from a baseline of voting not being easy, in so many ways. One big reason why the effect of the “one mail ballot dropoff location per county” ruling was minimal is precisely because access to mail ballots is so limited, and we saw that play its way out in the courts. If counties had to spend large amounts of money setting up early voting locations, it’s in part because the Legislature took away the option of temporary voting locations in the 2019 session, not to mention the removal of straight-ticket voting, which meant it would take longer for people to vote and might lead to longer lines at voting locations. We haven’t even talked about Texas’ notoriously strict voter ID law, or its refusal to allow online voter registration or same-day voter registration, or its recent efforts to purge voter rolls, or the problems of how hard it is for people with disabilities to vote, and on and on and on. If we have heroic levels of turnout this year, it’s in spite of all these obstacles.

– So my bottom line is that while turnout this year has been truly remarkable, and I hope that the results will be equally remarkable, none of this should obscure the fact that we have a lot of room to improve. And the only way that will happen is if we win enough election to make the systemic changes we need.

Hope that wasn’t too long. I’m out of thoughts for now. Go vote if you haven’t already.

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.

Not everyone will be sending in their mail ballot

I get this.

Samina Mirza had read enough in the news about U.S. Postal Service delays that she decided there was no way she’d trust the mail to deliver her ballot to Harris County election officials on time.

The 70-year-old retired nonprofit staffer had originally planned to drop off her ballot at a location near her home in Katy, until Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation limiting counties to just one drop-off site.

“I wasn’t going to drive 25 miles to downtown Houston to use the dropbox because the nearest one was taken away, so I said ‘OK that’s fine, I’ll take a chance and just vote in person,’” said Mirza, who voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president.

Mirza is one of about 32,000 voters in Harris County and almost 9,600 in Bexar County who had received a mail-in ballot but chose to instead vote in person as of Wednesday — and there’s still a week and a half left of early voting to go. That’s about 13 percent and 9 percent of all voters who received mail ballots in each county, respectively.

About 759,000 Harris County residents had voted early in person by Wednesday and about 115,000 had done so by mail. In Bexar County, about 326,000 had voted in person and about 70,000 by mail.

“Since there are more people voting by mail in general, it does make sense that some people might change their mind for whatever reason and decide to vote in person,” said Roxanne Werner, Harris County spokeswoman. “Some people may have applied months ago, and with news about USPS and general situations changing, they may have decided to vote in person.”

[…]

Some who switched to in-person voting, like Mirza, cited concerns about the reliability of the mail. Others said they felt attached to their habit of in-person voting. Others still felt more reassured about the safety of the polling places with the longer early voting period, and after observing early voting procedures adapted for the pandemic.

The bottom line for all of the voters, though, was that in a high-stakes election that’s drawing record numbers of Texans to the polls, they didn’t want to take a chance that their vote would not count.

Still, it’s putting an extra burden on poll workers who are already stretched thin handling high turnout and trying to manage wait times that increase potential exposure to the virus.

Well, yes. That was one of the reasons why election administrators were encouraging people to vote by mail in the first place. Not that any of our fake fraud-obsessed Republican leaders cared. Had Harris and other counties been allowed to have more than one mail ballot dropoff location, that would have also worked. But as someone once said, it is what it is. At least these folks will still be voting – as we have observed, the harder the Republicans have made it to vote, the more determined everyone seems to be. Shouldn’t have to be this way, and someday we will make it better, but for now this is where we are.

If you received a mail ballot – not just an application, but an actual mail ballot – you must bring it with you and turn it in if you decide to vote in person. Your vote will be provisional otherwise. No big deal, people do this, just bring it with you. Or fill it out and mail it in (quickly!) or drop it off. Just make sure you vote.

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.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

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.

Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

Because of course they did. Why would you have expected anything else?

In a ruling issued late Monday night, a federal appeals court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that limited counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by President Donald Trump, rejected arguments from civil and voting rights groups that claimed Abbott’s order suppressed voting rights by making it harder to cast a ballot, particularly for elderly and disabled voters who are the most likely to use mail-in balloting.

In reality, the judges said, Abbott expanded voting options by suspending a state law that allows mail-in ballots to be hand delivered only on Election Day — a July 27 order that Abbott merely refined on Oct. 1 by closing multiple ballot drop-off sites in Travis and three other large counties, the panel said.

“That effectively gives voters 40 extra days to hand-deliver a marked mail-in ballot to an early voting clerk. And the voter still has the traditional option she has always had for casting a mail-in ballot: mailing it,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel.

The ruling blocked Friday’s injunction from U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who said Abbott’s order placed an unacceptable burden on voters who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

[…]

The panel criticized Pitman for vastly overstating the magnitude of the burden on voting rights caused by Abbott’s “partial refinement” of an earlier order that made it easier for eligible Texans to hand deliver a ballot before Nov. 3.

“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” Duncan wrote. “Indeed, one strains to see how it burdens voting at all.”

Texans still have “numerous ways” to participate before the Nov. 3 election — by voting early beginning Tuesday because Abbott added six days to the early voting period as a pandemic safety measure, by hand delivering completed mail-in ballots before Election Day, and by dropping their ballot in the mail, Duncan said.

See here and here for the background. Never mind the fact that the state of Texas had previously affirmed that multiple dropoff locations were legal, never mind the fact that Abbott issued this order a week before early voting began and more than two months after Harris County had announced its plan for multiple locations, and of course never mind the global pandemic that has everyone seeking to mitigate their own personal risk. Abbott extended the early voting period, so what are you peasants complaining about?

I mean, look. The Harris County Clerk used legal means to make voting easier and more accessible. The Governor used a false pretext to overrule him, and did so late in the process after people had been led to expect what the Clerk had implemented. The fact that the Governor had indeed taken steps to expand voting access isn’t relevant. The fact that most other counties hadn’t taken similar action as Harris isn’t relevant – they could have and in many cases should have, and if the Governor thought that was unfair to the voters in the slacking counties, he could have used the same authority he exercised here to try to spur those other counties to action. The point is that Harris County stood for making it easier and more convenient to vote, and the state of Texas said no, you can’t do that. In response, the Fifth Circuit said “we don’t see the problem here”. That’s what we’re up against.

I should note that there is still that state lawsuit, which will have a hearing this week. I don’t expect much at this point, but duty compels me to point this out. I presume the other federal lawsuit – as I observed before, this was a combination of two federal lawsuits, but did not include the third – is now moot. As we have seen over and over again, the way forward is going to require winning more elections first.

2020 early voting starts today

From the inbox:

The Early Voting period for the November 2020 General Election begins tomorrow, Tuesday, October 13th, and continues through Friday, October 30th. This is the longest Early Voting period in Texas history, and voters who are not eligible to vote by mail are encouraged to vote early to avoid long lines and crowds on Election Day. The Harris County Clerk’s Office has provided more voter access than ever before, tripling the number of Early Voting Centers from just over 40 in 2016 to 122 this November. Visit http://www.HarrisVotes.com/Locations to find your nearest voting center, along with approximate wait times at voting centers across Harris County.

“My number one priority is keep voters and election workers safe this November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We know that voting by mail is the safest and most convenient way to vote, but for the thousands of Harris County residents that are not eligible, we’ve provided more opportunities to vote and stay safe than ever before in Texas history. We’ve worked hard to provide a safe in-person voting experience and give voters more choices in how they cast their ballot — from larger, safer locations to voting from the comfort and safety of your vehicle. I encourage everyone to make your plan to vote and to take advantage of the Early Voting period to cast your ballot safely this fall.”

VOTING METHODS

KEY DATES

  • Tuesday, October 13: First day of Early Voting
  • Friday, October 23: Last day to apply to vote by mail
  • Tuesday, October 27 – Thursday, October 29: Extended Early voting hours to 10 pm
  • Thursday, October 29: 24 hour voting at eight (8) locations
  • Friday, October 30: Last day of Early Voting
  • Tuesday, November 3: Election Day

For more information, please visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

As a matter of historical pattern, today is likely to be very heavy, and the two or three days before the end of early voting are also very heavy, with the last day usually swamping the rest. Keep that in mind if you want to vote in person and minimize your exposure to crowds. If you have a flexible schedule, vote in the later morning – say, between 9 and 11 – or mid-afternoon – say, between 2 and 4 – to avoid the rush hour and lunchtime folks. Look to see how busy your location is, and choose another if it looks less crowded. We can all do a little something to avoid and minimize risk.

And while the courts will likely not do anything to stop Greg Abbott’s vote-suppresing order to close mail ballot dropoff locations, you can still drop yours off at Reliant Arena, or just put it in the mail as people have always done. Just do it quickly, don’t wait on it, and track its progress. If you have requested a mail ballot and for some reason have not received it, and you cannot vote in person (I have a friend who asked about this for her son at college), by all means call the County Clerk’s office and have them check it out. They should be able to send you another one ASAP if the first one didn’t get sent or got lost.

At this point I would say if you’ve been going to the grocery store or getting takeout, you can and probably should vote in person, picking a good place and time as noted above. But do make a plan, because turnout is gonna be lit.

Harris County election officials are preparing for a record number of voters to cast their ballots before Election Day, a process that will ramp up across Texas on Tuesday as early voting begins for the November general election.

County Clerk Chris Hollins, the elections administrator for the state’s largest county, said he expects as many as 1.7 million Harris County voters to turn out, a total that would shatter the record 1.3 million votes from 2016. Political analysts and elections officials are projecting an unusually large share of the votes will come during the early voting period, which Gov. Greg Abbott extended by six days, and through the mail as voters look to avoid contracting COVID-19 at crowded Election Day polling sites.

“It’s very likely that you’re looking at close to about three-quarters of all the vote being in before Election Day, which is a dramatic turnaround from what we’ve had just a few years ago,” said Jay Aiyer, an assistant county attorney working on elections at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “It’s better to think of the election process as less about Election Day and Nov. 3 and really more about ‘election weeks.’”

I should note that 74% of the vote in 2016 was early or by mail, and 71% was early or by mail in 2018. So this is in line with recent elections, though with likely much higher numbers this time around.

Hollins had mailed out 235,000 ballots by this past weekend, his office announced, more than doubling the total from 2016. He had anticipated sending out roughly 10 times that amount to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stopped the effort through a legal challenge.

The clerk’s office had received 22,000 completed mail ballots by the weekend, while another 13,250 voters had dropped off their ballots in person at NRG Arena through Friday.

Driving part of the expected turnout increase is the steady growth of Harris County’s voter rolls. The county has added nearly 234,000 registered voters since 2016, far more than the 143,000 new residents added during the same span.

I’ll be tracking everything as usual. Now get out there and vote!

Judge briefly halts Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

Late Friday breaking news, which lasted until the early afternoon on Saturday.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots heading into the Nov. 3 general election, blocking the enforcement of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order that sought to limit counties to just one such location.

Saying Abbott’s order confused voters and restricted voter access, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted an injunction late Friday barring its enforcement. With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous locations to accept the ballots before Abbott’s order.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county,” Pitman wrote, “older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party called Friday’s ruling a “common sense order [that] followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”

Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats had denounced Abbott’s order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal court, arguing the order was based on invalid security concerns and places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

The Texas and national League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed suit the night of Abbott’s order, and another lawsuit was filed the next day by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group Bigtent Creative and a 65-year-old voter.

“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location. Limiting counties like Harris is a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. Looking at the plaintiffs, it appears that the first lawsuit and the second lawsuit were combined. That leaves one other federal lawsuit, plus the one state lawsuit for which there is a hearing next week.

One presumes this will be appealed, and as we all know the Fifth Circuit is where all good things go to die. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that allowing Abbott’s order, which was made more than two months after counties had begun making plans to have multiple dropoff locations and after the state Solicitor General filed a brief saying that state law allowed for this, is the thing that would improperly disrupt the election at this late date. I also think the Fifth Circuit can rise to the occasion of brushing such an objection aside. Travis County, one of the places that had multiple dropoff locations in place prior to the order, has said it will wait to see what the Fifth Circuit does before reopening them. It’s hard to fault them for that. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

UPDATE: As expected, Paxton has filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judge’s ruling. You can read that here. The smart money always says that he gets what he asks for from this court, so it’s a matter of how quickly they have a hearing and issue a ruling.

UPDATE: Faster than you can say “Anything you want, Kenny”, the Fifth Circuit grants Paxton’s motion. Now we wait for a hearing. See why Travis County decided to wait before reopening any of those dropoff locations? Here’s the Chron story about the granting of the stay.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.