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Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

Beto still seeking to dismiss oligarch’s lawsuit against him

Might have better luck this time around.

Remember last year when Gov. Greg Abbott’s biggest donor sued gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke for defamation, slander, and libel? Well, that’s still going on.

The legal fight has moved into a state appeals court, where O’Rourke is seeking to dismiss Kelcy Warren’s defamation lawsuit or remove the case from the energy executive’s county of choice.

Warren sued the Democrat in February, alleging that O’Rourke is trying to “publicly humiliate him and discourage others from contributing to Gov. Abbott’s campaign.”

[…]

Last month, a judge in San Saba County rejected O’Rourke’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.This week, O’Rourke made the same request to the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, arguing that he exercised his free speech rights protected by the Texas Citizens Participation Act.

The state law protects against retaliatory lawsuits that seek to intimidate or silence speakers on matters of public concern.

“This is a frivolous abuse of the judicial system to silence political debate,” O’Rourke’s appeal said. “O’Rourke’s colloquial use of sharp words to describe a gas industry billionaire making a $1 million contribution days after the governor signed legislation containing a loophole favoring the gas industry is protected political speech and is not defamatory.”

On Wednesday, O’Rourke filed a second appeal at the 3rd Court, which argues that if the lawsuit was allowed to continue, it should be moved from San Saba County.

See here, here, and here for the background. I saw a story about the initial rejection of the motion to dismiss last month, but it was a super busy news time and I didn’t get around to noting it. I still think there could be political value in just going straight to discovery and depositions on this, but I also think Beto will win on his motions, and that that is the more prudent course of action. I will continue to watch this space. The Statesman has more.

House passes assault weapon ban

Another bill that won’t pass the Senate, but nonetheless shows the gap in values and priorities between the two parties.

As the House passed legislation to ban assault weapons for the first time in nearly two decades Friday, Democrats pointed to a string of mass shootings in Texas where such weapons were used to kill dozens of people: Nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde in May; 23 shoppers in an El Paso Walmart almost exactly three years ago; 26 congregants in a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017.

“We’ve turned our churches, our schools, our shopping centers, our entertainment venues — almost any place — into a battleground, with one massacre after another,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, said some of her constituents who survived the mass shooting there in 2019 are still recovering from their injuries.

“The domestic terrorist who attacked my community was able to do so with a legally purchased assault weapon,” Escobar said. “What was once an unthinkable tragedy — the mass carnage we saw in El Paso — is now commonplace across America.”

[…]

The bill narrowly passed the House on a 217-213 vote as five Democrats joined all but two Republicans in opposing the legislation.

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen — two Democrats whom Republicans have targeted in competitive South Texas midterm races — voted against the ban.

Gonzalez said in a statement that he “strongly supports” expanded background checks, waiting periods, red flag laws and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

“But there are tens of millions of assault rifles already in circulation across America, many of them are used by responsible gun owners for hunting in South Texas,” he said. “And a ban on some of those models will do nothing to reduce overall risks.”

The vote comes at the urging of gun safety advocates and survivors and family members of victims of recent mass shootings. Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi was killed at Robb Elementary School, asked lawmakers to ban the weapons during testimony before the House Oversight Committee last month.

“Somewhere out there, there’s a mom listening to our testimony, thinking, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain.’ Not knowing that our reality one day will be hers,” Rubio said. “Unless we act now.”

The bill would ban new sales of assault-style rifles and create a voluntary buyback program. It would add new safe storage requirements for existing assault weapons.

Three points of interest here. One, while I would have preferred for Reps. Cuellar and Gonzalez to have voted with the majority, I’m less concerned by such votes when the bill passes anyway. As long as you’re not preventing it from passing, like some Senators I could name, it doesn’t bother me that much. Your mileage may vary on that.

Two, I’m not interested in litigating what the definition of an “assault weapon” is. We’ve had such a ban on the books before, and if this bill is modeled after that law, it’s good enough for me. Including buyback and safe storage provisions are bonuses. I don’t need this law to be perfect, I just need it to have a positive effect.

Which leads to the final point, that Rep. Gonzalez’s complaint that this bill won’t reduce the overall risk is wrong on its face and is wrong in the way that the more sweeping critique of any gun control law that it won’t stop every gun death ever is wrong. I’m not going to make the cyberdefense analogy here again, but that’s the basic idea. It’s fine for each law to focus on one or two specific aspects of the issue. Do that enough and the sum total will be a robust attack on the overall risk level. You can never get the risk to zero, in cybersecurity or public health or climate change or gun safety or national defense or any number of other large multi-faceted threats. But you can significantly lower your risk and improve your ability to respond effectively when something unwanted happens. We do this all the time in many other fields, and making the “we shouldn’t do this thing because it won’t solve all of our problems” argument in those contexts would mark you as ignoramus. It’s way past time we stopped giving those arguments against basic gun safety laws any credibility. The Trib has more.

There was definitely an improvement in mail ballot acceptance for the primary runoffs

The last time I looked, I was largely unable to find any news stories about mail ballots and their rejection rates for the May primary runoff elections, with the exception of one story about Bexar County and how they were leading the field in getting rejection rates down to something akin to pre-SB1 levels. I still can’t find any stories about this, but it (finally) occurred to me that the new reconciliation reports that election officials now have to publish would contain the data I’m looking for. So with that in mind, off I went. I obviously don’t have the time to go looking everywhere, and some of those smaller county elections webpages are just awful, but I did have a look at a few places of interest.

Harris County, Democratic: 19,081 total mail ballots, of which 1,128 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 5.9%.

Harris County, Republican: 15,053 total mail ballots, of which 1,169 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 7.8%

That’s a clear improvement of the 20% rejection rate from March and the 12% rejection rate of the May special election. It’s still too high, but it’s not take-your-breath-away too high. And it pleases me no end to see Republicans have a harder time with it than Democrats. It’s unlikely to be enough to matter if that’s still the case in November, but it would be a rich piece of karma if more of their votes got tossed as a result of this malicious law.

Bexar County, Democratic: 11,919 total mail ballots, of which 15 (yes, fifteen) were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.1%.

Bexar County, Republican: 5,856 total mail ballots, of which 33 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Bexar is definitely the gold standard, the example for everyone else to emulate. And Dems did better here as well. Encouraging.

Travis County, cumulative: 10,224 total mail ballots, of which 222 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 2.2%.

Not all counties broke this out by party. The overall rate is low enough here to not sweat it too much. About 75% of the mail ballots overall were Democratic, so it’s likely that the Dem rejection rate was right around 2.2% – the Republican rate could have been a lot different without affecting the total too much.

Dallas County, cumulative: 10,708 total mail ballots, of which 176 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 1.6%.

Like Travis County, but slightly fewer rejections. Dems cast a bit less than 70% of the mail ballots.

Montgomery County, cumulative: 4,366 total mail ballots, of which 25 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.6%.

Republicans knew what they were doing here. They were 70% of mail ballots.

Fort Bend County, cumulative: 4,382 total mail ballots, of which 187 were rejected, for a 4.3% rejection rate.

Closest one yet to Harris. About two thirds of mail ballots were Democratic. Would have been nice to see the breakdown by party here.

Cameron County, Democratic: 1,323 total mail ballots, of which 3 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.3%.

Cameron County, Republican: 292 total mail ballots, of which 2 were rejected, for a rejection rate of 0.7%.

Wow.

So it’s clear there was a lot of improvement, and while Harris did a much better job there’s room for us to do better as well. It’s also important to remember that there are still a huge number of people who have not yet tried to vote by mail, so there’s no guarantee that the improvements will continue or be maintained. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least it looks like that work will have a payoff.

(PS – Not all counties had the reconciliation reports in a place that I could find. I looked for them for El Paso and Tarrant and came up empty. Might have just been me, but maybe their site design needs some work.)

Tomorrow is Primary Runoff Day

You know the drill, this is your last chance to vote in the primary runoffs. We will finally have the 2022 lineup set for November and can concentrate all of our attention and attacks on the other guys. The map of Tuesday voting locations in Harris County is here – there will be 263 locations, you can vote at any of them, but remember that this map only shows 50 at a time, so if you don’t see something close to you either go to the next 50 or search by your address. An alphabetized list of all locations is here.

I continue to be obsessed by mail ballots and their rejection rates, which was a huge story in March and (very annoyingly) has largely dropped off the radar since. I have some info about mail ballot rejections in the May election in the next post, and in the same search for news that I did on Sunday I found this story from El Paso about their primary runoff experience so far.

More than one of every seven mail ballots cast in El Paso for the primary runoff elections were rejected, mostly because of failure to comply with new steps required this year, the county’s election administrator said.

That rejection rate is much higher than in previous years, when fewer than 10% of mail ballots were thrown out, but down from the 45% rejection rate in the first week of early voting for the March 1 primary.

[…]

Through Wednesday, 562 mail-in ballots — or about 15% of the more than 3,800 cast — had been returned to voters, most because they did not include a driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number on the ballot envelope, El Paso County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise said.

Wise said 165 of the returned ballots had been “cured” as of Wednesday, meaning voters had fixed the error. The 397 remaining rejected mail-in ballots — and any others that might be rejected before Tuesday’s runoff elections — can only be counted if they’re cured by next week.

[…]

Wise said the elections office has been proactive in trying to reduce the number of rejected ballots.

“This election, we began highlighting the carrier envelope from the beginning, alerting voters to the required information. That happened about halfway through with the primary election,” she said. “I believe that is helping with the percentage (of rejected ballots), and many of these voters are getting a second look at the new requirements as well.”

In the March primary, more than 1,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in the first week of early voting. Many voters were able to cure their ballots, but more than 700 mail-in ballots in El Paso County were discarded after election officials found non-compliance with state law and the voters failed to fix the problem. An El Paso Matters analysis found that the vast majority of rejected ballots were from regular voters, many of whom had been registered to vote in the county for decades.

That last sentence is why I’ve been beating the drum about this, and emphasizing that the Democratic Party and its candidates, groups, clubs, and volunteers need to be leading the effort to educate their voters. (The rejection rate in Harris County was at about twelve percent, better than March but still too high.) Some county election offices have been doing a good job of this, but we can’t count on that. This is fixable, but people have to know what they need to do. And if you have received a mail ballot but for whatever the reason decide you want to vote in person, bring the mail ballot with you and turn it in when you go to vote in person.

Texas misses the train

Greg Abbott’s border hostage-taking has a cost.

The Mexican government said it intends to shift long-range plans to build a trade railway connection worth billions of dollars from Texas to New Mexico in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s stepped-up border inspections last month, which were widely criticized as being financially damaging and may now leave a lasting impact on relations between Texas and its No. 1 trading partner.

Mexican Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier said a planned rail and ports expansion — known as the T-MEC Corridor — to connect the Pacific port of Mazatlán to the Canadian city of Winnipeg would not use Texas, but instead the rail line would be routed along the far edge of West Texas up through Santa Teresa, N.M., about 20 miles west of downtown El Paso.

“We’re now not going to use Texas,” Clouthier said at a conference April 28 in Mexico City. “We can’t leave all the eggs in one basket and be hostages to someone who wants to use trade as a political tool.”

Clouthier was referring to what Mexican and U.S. officials and business leaders on both sides of the border have described as chaos generated by Abbott’s April 6 order requiring that all commercial trucks coming from Mexico to Texas go through “enhanced” safety inspections. Abbott said the move was necessary to crack down on human and drug smugglers.

Critics pushed back, saying the governor’s move was motivated by politics and noting that commercial trucks are already checked by U.S. federal authorities. They also noted that border security is a federal responsibility, and that while DPS officials can conduct vehicle safety inspections, they have no authority to conduct searches.

[…]

During a visit to Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s Foreign Minster Marcelo Ebrard told Milenio TV Sunday night that the stepped up inspections were “an extortion scheme, or rather it is extortion: I close the border and you have to sign whatever I say. That’s not a deal, a deal is when you and I are in agreement on something.”

Abbott’s office didn’t return a request for comment.

Jerry Pacheco, president of the Santa Teresa-based Border Industrial Association, called Clouthier’s announcement “a very positive step for New Mexico,” but cautioned that such a project will take years to complete and “anything can happen in that time.”

“I don’t think they’ve even gotten to finish a design yet,” Pacheco said. “So this is very much in the preliminary stages, but the very fact that we’re being discussed in the early stages is a positive thing. If this particular project doesn’t work out, there’ll be other projects that the Mexican government will have and they’ll speak favorably of New Mexico because they know we want to work with them in a constructive way.”

Pacheco said he’s already seen a sea change from the business community in Mexico and the United States.

“It’s been very interesting, but since Gov. Abbott’s truck inspections went away, our traffic numbers remain higher than normal in terms of northbound cargo shipments, which leads me to believe that what I thought would be a temporary fix is actually going to stick in the long term,” he said. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso business leaders “are referring to us now as a ‘very effective delivery route.’ ”

[…]

In many ways, Abbott’s inspections only boosted Santa Teresa, an already thriving community with a port of entry where companies also produce materials and components for factories in Mexico that assemble everything from computers, wind blades, consumer electronics and processed foods to automobiles and industrial equipment that they then ship back to U.S.-based businesses.

Industrial parks in Santa Teresa house big warehouses for products constantly crisscrossing the border, backed by a transportation network that includes an airport and railroad and distribution firms that manage the constant movement of goods in all directions. The entire industrial zone operates as one of the nation’s largest inland ports for truck-and-train transshipments across North America, although Laredo is the No. 1 crossing point for commercial rigs.

The Santa Teresa port has long offered a rapid alternative to congested border crossings in El Paso, where it generally takes two hours or more for northbound trucks to enter the U.S. In contrast, it takes it can less than 20 minutes in Santa Teresa, according to Pacheco.

“For businesses who haven’t used Santa Teresa Port of Entry, think of this alternative as a great, necessary idea,” said Franz Felhaber, president of Felhaber and Company Inc., a customs brokerage company that serves clients on both sides of the border.

I believe the technical term for all of this is “fuck around and find out”. Do things that are bad for business and business will look for opportunities elsewhere – that’s just Capitalism 101. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans cared about that sort of thing, but culture wars and identity have supplanted those values, so this is what we get.

Bloomberg News adds on:

It’s hard to quantify the economic impact of shifting a single rail line, it’s unclear what authority Mexico’s government has to dictate where the crossing would be, and the entire project is still in the very early stages and would take years to complete if it does come to fruition. And to be sure, Mexico has a history of announcing massive infrastructure projects that never get off the ground. But the minister’s comments underscore the frustration the government has with Abbott and the risk of jeopardizing a tight trading relationship.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner, with more than $400 billion of goods crossing annually, everything from avocados that get turned into guacamole to chassis that get turned into pickup trucks. Exports from Texas are equivalent to 17% of the state’s economy, and about one-third of Texas exports go to Mexico.

The significance of the minister’s announcement is that “it’s not just necessarily them being hostile, but them taking a concrete step,” said Nitya Pandalai-Nayar, an economics professor at University of Texas at Austin. “Firms all over the country trade with Mexico, and many of them use Texas as the base for shipping to Mexico.”

You know the old joke about getting a donkey’s attention. Maybe this will get Greg Abbott’s.

Or maybe not. I have no doubt that Abbott and his minions will rabble-rouse over this – they’ll complain about “woke” companies and continue to throw billions of dollars at the border for the purpose of rounding up traffic violators and other misdemeanants, all for the purpose of ginning up the base. It’s been a successful electoral strategy for the most part (2018 being a notable exception), and they’re not going to change course now, or anytime soon without a strong reason to. That reason is, and can only be, losing a bunch of elections. The lesson that the business community needs to internalize is that the Republicans aren’t on their side any more. If they want their daddy’s Republican Party back, they need to get this current incarnation out of office. You and I know what they need to do, it’s just a matter of if they can figure it out. TPM, the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, Daily Kos, the Current, and Dos Centavos have more.

More on the oligarch suing Beto

From the Observer; I’m picking it up after the initial statements by Beto that got Kelcy Warren’s undies in such a wad:

Free-speech advocates and many legal scholars have long decried these sort frivolous lawsuits—known as SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—as a blatant abuse of the country’s legal system by powerful and wealthy people and corporations in an attempt to silence outspoken activists, critical reporters, and rivals alike.

“Kelcy Warren is far from the first billionaire to file a lawsuit against someone who says something they don’t like. … And even though they’re highly unlikely to succeed on the merits, they file them anyway,” Evan Mascagni, policy director for the anti-SLAPP advocacy group Public Participation Project, told the Observer.

“SLAPP-filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, they file these meritless lawsuits to silence, harass, and intimate their critics. Defending against a meritless lawsuit can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and clog up the court system for years while at the same time having a chilling effect on the writer or speaker.”

With one of Abbott’s top donors going directly after his political ally’s opponent, Warren’s lawsuit marks an unprecedented incursion into Texas politics—one that is likely to only further elevate the mega-donor’s role in the most high-profile election this year. It seem to be an unwelcome move for Abbott, whose campaign promptly issued a statement saying that it had no involvement with the suit. O’Rourke, meanwhile, is spoiling for the fight—and has doubled-down in his rhetoric in the wake of the lawsuit. Earlier this month, O’Rourke compared Abbott to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him an “authoritarian” and a “thug,” and said, “he’s got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas”—an apparent reference to Warren.

The law firm—Kasowitz Benson Torres—that Warren hired to take on O’Rourke is notorious for aggressively litigating these types of suits on behalf of its powerful clients, including his company, Energy Transfer Partners. The firm’s founder, Marc Kasowitz, was also the longtime attorney for the infamously litigious former President Donald Trump.

[…]

While it’s not clear if O’Rourke will ultimately file a motion to get the suit tossed, experts say the state’s anti-SLAPP law was created for cases like these.

“My general impression of the lawsuit is that it’s very much subject to dismissal under the TCPA,” Lane Haygood, an Odessa-based lawyer who has worked on free-speech cases in the state, told the Observer.

“The statements that could survive [an anti-SLAPP dismissal] are the ones that get closest to accusing Mr. Warren of committing a specific crime,” Haygood added. “There are a couple of times that O’Rourke uses words like extortion or bribery, which are defined crimes under the Texas Penal Code. But they are also rhetorical shorthand and hyperbolic, and so in context, Texas courts are generally likely to hold that such language is not specific enough to be actionable defamation. It is the difference between saying ‘John Smith assaulted me on September 4, 2021,’ and ‘John Smith is a bully who beat me up.’ ”

O’Rourke has dismissed Warren’s claims as blatantly frivolous, saying that everything he’s said is based on publicly available facts and media reports. So far, he’s indicated that he wants to let the case play out—paying for any legal costs with campaign funds. This week, his attorneys filed motions to change the venue of the lawsuit to a court in his home of El Paso County and called for a trial by jury.

Under the state’s anti-SLAPP law, O’Rourke has 60 days from the date he was served—February 28—to file a motion to dismiss. It’s not uncommon for attorneys to wait until the deadline to do so in case the defendant files an amended petition, Haygood said.

Or O’Rourke may see the public spectacle of this lawsuit as a political gift that’s well worth going to court over—especially since his ample campaign funds should easily cover the legal costs of a drawn-out legal battle.

See here and here for the background. Beto has basically until the end of April to file a motion for dismissal, which is still the legally sound strategy. Politically, though, it likely makes more sense to say “bring it”, and start filing tons of motions for discovery. I have no idea what Beto will do, but I’d love to sit in on his next call with the lawyers.

Beto responds to oligarch’s lawsuit

Game on.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke is blasting a pipeline company executive and top donor to Greg Abbott’s re-election campaign for filing a defamation lawsuit against him as he tries to unseat the two-term Republican governor.

O’Rourke’s attorney filed a legal response to the suit in San Saba County on Monday saying it lacked any factual or legal grounds and that O’Rourke denies all the allegations made by Kelcy Warren, a major Abbott donor.

O’Rourke is also asking for a trial by jury. He calls Warren’s lawsuit an attempt to stop him from talking about the role pipeline companies like Warren’s played in causing power outages during the February 2021 freeze that killed over 200 Texans, by the state’s count.

“But no matter how much money they have, or how hard they try to silence me in the courts, I will never back down from standing up for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said.

[…]

Since 2019, Warren has given Abbott $1.25 million, making him one of Abbott’s top four financial backers for his re-election campaign.

Warren, from Dallas, is chairman of the board at the gas pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners and its former CEO. Abbott over the years has appointed Warren to high-profile boards and commissions — Warren is a member of the University of Texas Board of Regents and was previously a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Warren’s lawsuit alleges that O’Rourke is trying to “publicly humiliate Warren and discourage others from contributing to Gov. Abbott’s campaign.”

“What Mr. Warren is interested in stopping are the irresponsible, defamatory and highly offensive statements by Mr. O’Rourke related to his donation to Gov. Abbott’s campaign,” says a statement from Energy Transfer Partners.

See here for the background, and look deep in your heart for all the sympathy you can muster for this poor, maligned, misunderstood billionaire who only wanted to get an exorbitant return on his investment. Is that so much to ask?

Some details, for the lawyers:

From that first document:

The Plaintiff sued O’Rourke for defamation, and claims venue is proper (indeed, mandatory) in San Saba County because he resided here when the allegedly defamatory statements were made. Original Petition, ¶ 10 (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §15.017).

This claim is untrue. Although the Plaintiff does effectively control some real property in San Saba County, most of it is: (1) undeveloped; and (2) held in the name of an entity that the Plaintiff controls, not the name of the Plaintiff. The evidence shows the Plaintiff in fact lives in Dallas County, Texas, where his homestead is located, where he is registered to vote and where he actually, physically resides. Because the Plaintiff has Filed suit in a county other than a county of mandatory venue, the Court must grant this Motion to Transfer Venue and order the suit to be transferred to El Paso County, Texas, the county of O’Rourke’s residence.

And from the second:

Without waiving the right to plead further, Defendant specially excepts to the remainder of Plaintiff’s claims because Plaintiff has failed to assert factual and legal grounds for recovery against the Defendant under Texas law, or any other applicable law, for the remainder of his purported causes of action. The Defendant requests that Plaintiff be ordered to replead to state a legally actionable cause of action within a specified reasonable time and, upon Plaintiff’s failure to do so, that Plaintiff’s claims against the Defendant be dismissed.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s fancy lawyer-speak for “This whole thing is bullshit”. You love to see it. I hope this is giving Greg Abbott indigestion. The Daily Beast has more.

Precinct analysis: Beto’s range in the 2022 primaries

When you get 91.34% of the vote in an election, as Beto did in the Democratic primary for Governor, there’s usually not a whole lot of interesting data beneath the surface. But you never know until you look, so I went and got the numbers for the Dem gubernatorial primary by county and sorted them by Beto’s percentage. Here are some highlights from that:


County      Diaz%  Cooper%   Beto%   Voters
===========================================
Maverick   16.40%   10.48%  60.71%    6,653
Frio        8.14%    6.87%  71.72%    2,518
Dimmit     10.41%    7.97%  71.98%    1,845
Duval       8.18%    6.73%  75.62%    1,858
Webb        8.55%    5.29%  77.02%   17,675
Jim Wells   8.23%    6.57%  78.71%    3,866
Cameron     6.99%    4.71%  81.46%   19,705
Hidalgo     6.44%    3.87%  81.68%   37,309
Jefferson   2.35%   12.72%  83.33%   12,637
El Paso     2.93%    2.14%  91.61%   37,017
Fort Bend   2.64%    3.69%  92.02%   39,613
Harris      2.10%    3.22%  92.83%  157,880
Nueces      2.63%    2.52%  93.17%   13,426
Dallas      1.98%    3.14%  93.53%  126,203
Tarrant     2.18%    3.03%  93.77%   73,413
Bexar       2.30%    1.38%  94.13%   94,334
Montgomery  2.25%    1.87%  94.13%   10,585
Travis      2.98%    0.85%  95.00%  108,831
Denton      1.85%    2.01%  95.09%   27,340
Collin      1.77%    1.36%  95.48%   36,368

I limited myself to counties where at least a thousand votes had been cast, though obviously I didn’t include all of them. Maverick was easily Joy Diaz’s best county, while Jefferson (where he’s from) was Michael Cooper’s best. I didn’t include the other two candidates in this table because they weren’t interesting, but Inno Barrientez had his best showing in Frio County, with 8.02% of the vote.

You might look at some of these places and think that this is a sign of weakness on Beto’s part, since the low-scoring places are mostly heavily Latino. I would invite you to consider how he did in these counties in 2018 before you arrive at such a conclusion.


County    Beto 18  Beto 22
==========================
Maverick   22.13%   61.71%
Frio       23.84%   71.72%
Dimmit     29.07%   71.98%
Duval      41.58%   75.62%
Webb       41.65%   77.02%
Jim Wells  40.24%   78.71%
Cameron    46.77%   81.46%
Hidalgo    50.50%   81.68%

Sema Hernandez got over 60% in Maverick, almost 60% in Frio, and over 50% in Dimmit. She won a plurality in Duval, Webb, and Jim Wells, and had over 40% in Cameron and Hidalgo. I largely pooh-poohed the “Beto underperformed in the Latino counties!” hot takes in March of 2018 and I stand by that, but however you felt about those numbers then, it’s very different now.

He really crushed it in the big counties, with Collin the winner as Most Beto-est County Of Them All. You could do this same sort of comparison with 2018 as well if you wanted – Beto got 65.5% in Collin in 2018, 57.7% in Dallas, and 59.1% in Harris – but all we’re really saying is he got a lot more votes from basically the same size electorate. However you slice it, that much remains.

More data about mail ballot rejections

Keep it coming.

Thousands of Texans who attempted to vote by mail in the March primary were disenfranchised in the state’s first election conducted under a new Republican voting law. The state’s largest counties saw a significant spike in the rates of rejected mail-in ballots, most because they did not meet the new, stricter ID requirements.

Local ballot review boards met this week to finalize mail-in ballot rejections, throwing out 11,823 mail-in ballots in just 15 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters. That doesn’t include Harris County, where thousands more votes had been flagged for rejection if voters couldn’t correct them in time. The final statewide count for rejected ballots is still unknown; counties are still reporting numbers to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

The rates of rejections range from 6% to nearly 22% in Bexar County, where almost 4,000 of the more than 18,000 people who returned mail-in ballots saw their votes discarded. In most cases, ballots were rejected for failing to comply with tighter voting rules enacted by Republicans last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail, according to rejection data collected by The Texas Tribune. A few counties’ rejection rates also included ballots that arrived past the voting deadline, but problems with the new ID requirements were the overwhelming cause for not accepting votes.

The impact of the ID requirements was particularly pronounced in several larger counties, including Bexar. In Dallas County, ID issues were to blame for nearly all of the lost votes reported, accounting for 682 of the 694 ballots that were rejected. Most ballots that were rejected because of the ID requirements were missing an ID number altogether. The county had an overall rejection rate of 6.5%

In Hays County, a suburban county south of Austin, all but one of the 208 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The county’s total rejection rate was 8.2%.

In Hidalgo County, just five of the 526 mail-in ballots that were rejected were scrapped because they arrived late. Most were rejected because of the ID requirements, officials said. The county had an overall rejection rate of 19.4%.

In Williamson County, roughly 73% of the 521 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The second main reason for rejection was late returns. Overall, 11.6% of ballots were rejected in the county.

[…]

Early rejection rates hovered between 30% to 40% but dropped as thousands of voters worked to safeguard their votes, often by visiting county elections offices after their ballots were flagged for rejection. Hundreds of other voters canceled their mail-in ballots and opted to vote in person instead, according to county data.

That included more than 300 voters in El Paso County who had initially requested absentee ballots but voted in person, with several voters surrendering their ballots at polling places. The county ended the election with a 16% rejection rate, throwing out 725 votes — 94% of them because of the ID rules.

“In the 2020 primary, we rejected 39 ballots,” Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso, said ahead of election day when the county had flagged more than a thousand ballots for review. “You don’t have to be a math wizard to see it.”

But the opportunity to resolve rejections — or to alternatively head to a polling place — was out of reach for some voters. County officials have said mail-in voters often include people for whom voting in person can be a challenge or who are unable to travel to the county elections office, which for voters in some counties can be a long distance away.

Voters facing a rejected ballot because of ID issues were also directed to the state’s new online tracker to try to validate their information, but technical issues with the tracker’s setup shut out nearly a million registered voters from even accessing it.

Under state law, a voter must provide both a driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number to log in to the tracker; both numbers must be on file in their voter record even though voters are required to provide only one number when they first register to vote.

Despite the secretary of state’s office’s efforts to backfill ID numbers in the state’s voter rolls, more than 700,000 voters lacked one of those ID numbers on their voter records as of Dec. 20. Another 106,911 voters didn’t have either number.

It’s likely not all of those voters are eligible to vote by mail, but the barrier risked hindering enough of Kara Sands’ voters that she pulled references to the online ballot tracker from the guidance she was providing Nueces County voters. Sands, the Republican elected county clerk, said most of the older voters in her county first registered to vote with a Social Security number and that remained the only ID on file for them.

“Why am I going to send them [materials saying] ‘Go here to fix it’ knowing they can’t fix it?” Sands said in an interview ahead of election day.

See here for yesterday’s post about the Bexar County experience. We still need to know how this broke down by party – given that fewer Republicans chose to vote by mail, it’s extremely likely that more Democratic ballots were rejected, but it may be that on a percentage basis they were equivalent – and we still need to distinguish between rejected applications and rejected ballots, as well as who did and didn’t vote in person afterwards. I don’t recall seeing a figure about how many registrations lacked one or both of SSNs and drivers license numbers before now, so it would be good to know as well how many people who did fill out the ballot correctly, with the proper voter ID information, were still rejected because the state database was incomplete. I could see that as a basis for another lawsuit, with the goal of halting all further rejections until the state can prove that its database is fully up to date, but that might be moot by November, and I don’t know what other relief a voter could ask for.

The Associated Press takes a crack at this, and offers a bit of partisan data.

Although the final number of discounted ballots will be lower, the early numbers suggest Texas’ rejection rate will far exceed the 2020 general election, when federal data showed that less than 1% of mail ballots statewide were rejected.

“It took me three tries and 28 days but I got my ballot and I voted,” said Pamiel Gaskin, 75, of Houston. Like many rejected mail voters, she did not list a matching identification number that Texas’ new law requires.

For now, the numbers do not represent how many Texas ballots were effectively thrown out. Voters had until Monday to “fix” rejected mail ballots, which in most cases meant providing identification that is now required under a sweeping law signed last fall by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

New requirements include listing an identification number — either a driver’s license or a Social Security number — on the ballot’s carrier envelope. That number must match the county’s records. If a ballot is rejected, voters could add an ID number via an online ballot tracking system, go to the county’s election offices and fix the problem in person, or vote with a provisional ballot on election day.

County election officers say they worked feverishly to contact those voters in time, in many cases successfully, and a full and final tally of rejected ballots in Texas is expected to come into focus in the coming days.

But already, scores of mail ballots have been disqualified for good.

[…]

The AP obtained reports from 120 counties — nearly half of the 254 in Texas — through county websites and contacting all counties that had not posted a report publicly.

In Texas’ largest county, around Houston, Harris County officials said more than 11,000 mail ballots had been flagged for rejection as of March 2. But in the county’s preliminary report that is dated a day later, the number of rejected mail ballots was listed at 3,277. On Tuesday, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was stepping down following a bungled vote count.

Houston Democrats have been among the most outspoken over Texas’ new voting laws, which they say are designed to weaken minority turnout. But Republican-leaning counties struggled with the new rules as well.

In Parker County, which former President Donald Trump carried by a 4-to-1 margin in 2020, the county reported 250 mail ballots as rejected or pending out of 1,100 mail votes — about 23%. Along the Texas coast in Nueces County, which Trump narrowly won, the rejection rate was 8%.

According to the county reports, in the five counties won by Trump that had the most mail-in voters, a combined 4,216 mailed ballots were rejected or still pending after the day of the election, a rate of 21% of the total. In the counties won by Biden with the most mail-in voters, which include most of Texas’ biggest cities, a combined 11,190 votes were similarly rejected or pending, which amounted to 13%.

Kara Sands, the election administrator in Nueces County, said her office pressed voters to include more than one identification number as a guardrail against having their ballot rejected. But she said her office wasn’t inundated with voter frustration.

“We really didn’t get a lot of folks complaining about that,” she said.

Texas holds primary runoffs in May, and elections officials say their goal now is to educate voters to avoid a repeat next time. Christopher Davis, the elections administrator in Williamson County, said the final rejection rate of 11.5% was “by far the highest we have ever seen” in the county of more than 600,000 people.

“The hope is we knock down that rejection rate,” he said.

Interesting that those five deep red counties had a higher rate of rejection than the blue counties, though there were fewer total votes there. Likely that’s a function of the blue counties being more populous, though that also suggests that a greater percentage of total votes were affected in the red counties. For comparison, the AP story notes that a total of about 8,300 mail ballots were rejected in the 2020 election, which was out of 11 million ballots cast. Every way you look at it, this was an exponential increase.

And Talking Points Memo was also on this.

The rejection rates are staggering. In booming Collin County, for example, nearly 14% of mail-in votes were ultimately rejected, the election administrator there told TPM.

In Harris County, Texas’ largest and home to Houston, a whopping 6,888 ballots were ultimately rejected “as a direct result of Senate Bill 1,” according to a statement from the county to TPM — nearly 19% of mail-in ballots. By comparison only, 135 of the 48,473 votes cast in the 2018 primary were rejected, the statement said — three tenths of a percent.

“That is apocalyptic. It calls into question whether this is even a free and fair election,” said James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “The sheer, catastrophically high rate of rejections has been very bad.”

Unlike many others, [Monica] Emery was able to fix her ballot, filling out multiple forms to “cure” the error in the days following Election Day, and consulting with attorneys and election officials to make sure her vote counted. Finally, she received word from the county on Monday, on the last possible day to fix ballot issues, that her vote had been tallied. (Texas’ new online “ballot tracker” website apparently didn’t get the memo: It continued to label her ballot “rejected.”)

But Emery, a retiree in the Dallas area, was one of the lucky ones. She’s “perfectly healthy.” She lives near her polling place. She knows her county officials and they had the bandwidth to help her. And she had additional help from multiple lawyers who she’d contacted for help. But what about her son, a pilot in the Air Force currently living in the United Kingdom? What about her elderly friend down the road, living with long COVID? Would they have been able to handle a tricky rejection letter? Would they have received word that their ballots had been rejected in time? She doubted it.

Lawmakers, Emery said, “are making it harder than it needs to be to do a real simple thing like voting by mail.”

[…]

In Travis County, home to Austin, 16% of the roughly 11,200 mail-in ballots were initially rejected, and only half of voters were able to cure those rejections in time to be counted, said Victoria Hinojosa of the Travis County clerk’s office.

Almost three of four rejected ballots were from Democrats, and most rejected ballots had “ID issues,” Hinojosa told TPM.

In Williamson County, north of Austin, 11.5% of ballots were rejected in the final tally — “absolutely higher than anything we’ve ever encountered before,” Elections Administrator Chris Davis told Austin’s NPR station KUT. In El Paso County, the final rejection rate was about 16%, or 725 mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reported.

In Collin County, which includes a chunk of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and is experiencing meteoric population growth, the ballot rejection rate right after the election hovered around 15%, down from a peak of 25% at the beginning of voting. After the curing period, that number ticked down slightly to a 13.7% rejection rate, or 828 ballots rejected.

“Unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed during the legislative session turned out to be true,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, which is part of a coalition of groups that sued over the law in September. “It’s very frustrating.”

“I can tell you, almost the whole thing is SB1-related,” Collin County Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet told TPM of the rejections. “If we had rejections before SB1, it was usually in the single digits.”

Sherbet said that nearly all of the rejections stemmed from missing ID numbers on the original voter file, ballot application or ballot itself. In some cases, older voters who’d aged out of driving tried to vote with their new state ID number, which didn’t match the old driver’s license number on their registration.

He lacked data on the party split, but said that it’s likely more Republican voters were hurt by the law’s new provisions, since roughly 1,600 more of them voted by mail in his county.

[…]

The chaos unleashed by the new mail-in ballot requirements was “very predictable,” Josh Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told TPM.

“The legislators were warned multiple times throughout hearings on these bills for the better part of a year that requiring voters to supply drivers license numbers or partial Social Security numbers, whichever of two you used to register to vote, would likely to be a problem for many Texans — especially given that most of the Texans who automatically qualify for mail-in ballots are over 65 and likely registered decades ago,” he said.

Less predictable is who exactly the confusing new requirements will hurt. While much of Republicans’ antagonism towards voting by mail stems from former President Donald Trump’s efforts to toss ballots in 2020, it’s not clear that knotting up the system will hurt Democratic voters more than Republican ones.

That “scattershot” strategy, Blank said, is due to the virtual nonexistence of voter fraud. It’s legislating a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It’s one thing to make unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud,” he said. “It’s another to reject hundreds of thousands of ballots, which is what Texas is on the path to do in November if this primary is any indication.”

As this story notes, the “ballot curing” process, in which voters whose mail ballots lacked the correct ID number had until Monday to fix them, likely will reduce the eventual total, which started at about 27,000. But doing that isn’t easy for everyone – some voters don’t have reliable Internet access, some can’t drive to the election administrator’s office, and so on.

Finally, because it took me longer than it should have to find this on Twitter, here’s most of the Harris County data I’ve been wanting:

Again, more Dem mail ballots overall, but a higher rejection rate among Republicans – 17.6% of all Dem mail ballots, and 22.0% of all GOP mail ballots. Still more Dem votes rejected, but in a scenario where the mail votes are distributed more evenly, like in 2018, that’s going to bite the Republicans. The Chron story that these tweets are based on is here. In response to a question from me, Scherer also reported that “13 people with rejected ballots ended up voting in person”, which obviously ain’t much. Makes me think that will be the cases around the state as well.

Of course, as I said yesterday and as noted in the AP story, we can do a lot to improve things for November, and we have the May primary runoff and special election to practice. But man, that will be an expensive and labor-intensive process, and it’s so completely unnecessary. You will note that Abbott and Sen. Bryan Hughes have been studiously avoiding the press on this, because what can they actually say? Or more likely, why would anyone think they cared? At least we have the rhetorical turf to ourselves for now. Whatever else we do, we need to get folks mad and motivated over this. Because – say it with me now – nothing will change until people lose elections over this crap. That’s the one sure thing we can do. Daily Kos has more.

Precinct analysis: Final 2022 primary vote totals from those counties of interest

At the end of early voting, I posted some totals from various counties around the state. I noted at the time it was an imprecise comparison since I included final 2018 turnout numbers as the comparison point for 2022 and said I’d update that table when voting was over. Well, voting is over, so let’s return to that table and see what we can see.


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Bell            7,282     18,149     9,089    20,912
Bexar          81,408     67,977    94,334    87,277
Brazoria       10,085     24,376    11,331    30,541
Brazos          5,131     12,365     4,611    16,430
Cameron        14,123      4,003    19,705    10,504
Collin         34,669     66,078    36,368    79,431
Comal           4,150     17,662     4,847    23,874
Dallas        123,671     80,583   126,203    86,551
Denton         27,025     49,474    27,340    68,104
El Paso        54,184     12,096    37,017    18,240
Ellis           4,243     15,906     5,376    18,536
Fort Bend      29,322     34,707    39,613    45,582
Hays           11,397     11,881    12,972    15,475
Hidalgo        37,739      7,050    37,309    15,042
Johnson         2,618     12,280     2,485    17,085
Lubbock         5,900     21,964     5,599    27,552
Maverick        6,300        111     6,653       623
Montgomery      9,701     48,921    10,585    71,451
Nueces         12,345     12,553    13,426    18,871
Smith           4,704     22,826     6,362    27,668
Starr           6,729         15     3,410     1,089
Tarrant        71,876    105,317    73,410   129,628
Travis        113,070     39,177   108,831    46,416
Webb           21,137      1,426    17,675     2,963
Williamson     25,681     35,675    26,067    47,431

The first thing you might notice is that the final numbers for Starr and Maverick counties are less than the final EV totals I had. How can that be? I double-checked the final EV totals on the SOS webpage, and they are now as they were then, 6,895 for Maverick and 5,188 for Starr. I may not know much, but I know that election totals go up, not down. How do I explain this?

I went and looked at the Starr County Elections page to see what I could find. What I found is that the turnout numbers they presented for the Democratic and Republican primaries are indeed different than what the SOS reported for the gubernatorial races, by a fair amount. While there were 3,410 votes cast in the Governor’s race on the Democratic side in Starr, and 1,089 on the Republican side, total turnout for Democrats was given as 6,456, with 1,444 as the total for Republicans. You can see if you scroll through that some races, like the CD28 Dem primary, got a lot more votes than the gubernatorial primary. I figured maybe the action was a bit heavier downballot, and that seemed to be true on the Dem side in that there were a lot more votes cast in the eight Justice of the Peace races. There were still undervotes, which were easier to comprehend as they were a lot closer to the “total votes” figures for each race, but if you added up all the votes in those eight JP precincts, you get the 6,456 and 1,444 figures cited.

Make of that what you will. The transition from the “actual total turnout regardless of who voted in what race” to the “total that actually voted in this race” was jarring, in this case because the undervote rate was so low. I have no idea what it might have been in 2018, so I can’t draw any conclusions. As for Maverick County, I couldn’t find a report from their website, just what the SOS had. Insert shrug emoji here.

Anyway. I didn’t have an agenda for this post, just an intention to keep the promise made before. I’ve got some other posts about primary voting in the works and will run those in the coming days.

2022 primary early voting statewide

Turnout information for early voting for all counties is available on the Secretary of State website. They used to only have this for the 30 most populous counties, which skewed things in a Democratic direction, but a law passed in 2019 required the data to be made available for all counties. Now that early voting has been completed, let’s see what the totals looked like in other counties of interest around the state.

Unfortunately, we can’t make a direct comparison for some of the counties I was interested in because as noted the SOS only has EV data for thirty counties. So what I did instead was collect the final turnout information for the 2018 Senate primaries in both parties. What that means is that the data below is a bit skewed, since we’re comparing EV turnout to overall turnout. Even there, “overall turnout” is a bit misleading since there are always undervotes, and the data I’ve captured for 2018 doesn’t include that. The 2022 numbers includes everyone who showed up, the 2018 data only has the ones who voted in their Senate races. It’s the best I can do. Here’s what it looks like:


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Bell            7,282     18,149     4,550     9,574
Bexar          81,408     67,977    60,033    50,025
Brazoria       10,085     24,376     6,809    20,323
Brazos          5,131     12,365     2,241     7,902
Collin         34,669     66,078    20,784    43,779
Comal           4,150     17,662     3,040    13,530
Dallas        123,671     80,583    66,109    38,928
Denton         27,025     49,474    14,683    37,288
El Paso        54,184     12,096    20,320     9,199
Ellis           4,243     15,906     2,479     8,136
Fort Bend      29,322     34,707    25,646    28,275
Hays           11,397     11,881     7,316     8,210
Johnson         2,618     12,280     1,224     8,175
Lubbock         5,900     21,964     3,267    17,184
Montgomery      9,701     48,921     6,052    41,596
Nueces         12,345     12,553     6,682     9,962
Smith           4,704     22,826     3,933    15,481
Tarrant        71,876    105,317    38,674    70,021
Travis        113,070     39,177    58,329    23,357
Williamson     25,681     35,675    14,558    26,672

For the most part, nothing terribly exciting. Overall Democratic turnout is about 627K, about 62% of the 2018 Senate race total of 1.04 million. Republicans are at about 1.02 million, or about 66% of the way to the 1.55 million they had in their Senate primary. While I talked about the “premier races” driving turnout statewide in the last entry, conditions in an individual county can vary. High profile and/or expensive races for Congress, County Judge, or other local offices can have an effect. Different counties have different patterns for how much of the vote is cast early versus on Election Day. We also have to consider the effect of SB1 on mail ballots. So far this year there have been 49,888 Republican primary ballots cast by mail, compared to 71,329 for the Dems. We don’t know the total figures for 2018, but a look at the top 30 county numbers makes it clear that Republicans used mail ballots a lot more four years ago.

So overall I don’t see too much that stands out. The one place that is a bit remarkable is El Paso, where Democratic voting is down quite a bit from 2018. We know that Beto was a big draw overall in El Paso, more so in the general, but remember that in 2018 there was also the primary to succeed Beto in Congress, and it was a fairly expensive race that featured then-County Judge and now Rep. Veronica Escobar. I suspect that drove some people to the polls as well.

What about the South Texas/Rio Grande Valley counties that shifted red in 2020? Here’s the same sample I looked at before, updated for the 2022 numbers:


County       2018 Dem   2018 GOP  2022 Dem  2022 GOP
====================================================
Cameron        14,123      4,003    14,500     6,455
Hidalgo        37,739      7,050    31,924    10,398
Maverick        6,300        111     6,895       440
Starr           6,729         15     5,188       969
Webb           21,137      1,426    13,384     1,499

Definitely more participation on the Republican side, exceeding the final 2018 totals in all five counties, though overall those numbers are still quite low compared to the Dems. Democratic numbers in Cameron and Maverick have also topped their 2018 counterparts, and are not far behind in Hidalgo and Starr. I’m a little puzzled by Webb, since that’s the center of the CD28 primary battle, but maybe that’s a mostly-vote-on-Election-Day place. We’ll see tomorrow. Have you voted yet?

El Paso mask mandate blocked

This is a city mask mandate. It does not affect the El Paso ISD mask mandate.

El Paso’s mandate requiring masks in indoor spaces, including schools, was ended on Thursday by the 8th Court of Appeals. The ruling does not apply to the El Paso Independent School District, which is involved in a separate court case.

The appeals court said the city’s mask mandate had to be lifted while it hears an appeal by the Texas Attorney General’s Office of a lower court ruling upholding the mandate. The ruling was based on Texas Supreme Court orders on similar mask mandates in San Antonio and Bexar County, the city said in a news release.

The mask mandate by Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the El Paso health authority, has been in effect since Aug. 17. The city’s rate of newly reported COVID-19 cases has declined in that time.

[…]

Despite Thursday’s ruling, the county’s largest district can continue to require students, teachers and staff to wear masks because it is part of a multiple school district lawsuit challenging Abbott’s executive order.

The El Paso ISD Board of Trustees voted on Aug. 17 to join a suit join a suit La Joya ISD and five other districts filed against Abbott days earlier in Travis County. The lawsuit now includes nearly two dozen districts, including a community college. EPISD was the only El Paso area district to join.

A Travis County judge granted the parties a temporary injunction against Abbott, allowing the districts to continue requiring masks. The governor is contesting that ruling with the 8th Court of Appeals. State and the districts’ attorneys are still submitting briefs before the court makes a final ruling in the case.

See here for some background. As noted, El Paso has been doing all right with the Delta outbreak. One has to assume that the mask mandate has helped with that. Hopefully the lifting of it now doesn’t set them back too far.

The proposed State House map is out

The last of the bunch.

Texas House members on Thursday released the first proposal for a new map redrawing the chamber’s 150-member districts. The initial draft would both increase Republicans’ strength across the state and the number of districts in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters.

House Bill 1, authored by Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter, the GOP chair of the House Redistricting Committee, is just the first draft, and it will likely change as it makes its way through the legislative process before it’s signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Legislature is in the midst of its third special session. This one is dedicated to redrawing political maps based on the latest census data that showed people of color fueled 95% of Texas’ population growth over the past decade. The percent of Hispanics is now nearly equal to white people in Texas.

But, the new map creates fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Black and Hispanic Texans make up two racial groups that along with Asian Texans outpaced the growth of white residents in the state over the last decade.

Currently 83 of the chamber’s 150 districts are areas in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters; 33 are districts where Hispanic voters make up the majority, while Black residents are the majority of eligible voters in seven districts.

Under the new proposal, the map adds six more districts where white residents make up the majority of eligible voters while the number of Hispanic and Black districts would each drop by three.

The proposed map would also change the partisan breakdown among the 150 districts, tilting the scale toward Republicans.

Currently, there are 76 districts that went to former President Donald Trump during the 2020 general election while 74 went to President Joe Biden. Among those, 50 districts voted 60% or more for Trump, — indicating the district is safely Republican — while 40 districts had more than 60% support for Biden — indicating strong Democratic support. Under the proposed new map, 86 districts would have gone for Trump, while 64 would have went for Biden. The number of districts that voted 60% or more for Trump or Biden would be tied at 46.

All the data for this plan is here, and the current State House map is here. I wrote about the other maps here: SBOE, State Senate (updated), Congress. For a good initial look at the partisan breakdowns and who is getting paired with whom, see Patrick Svitek and Derek Ryan. Note that Ryan uses a different formula to calculate the partisan strength of a district; by hit metric, Dems would be favored in 65, not 64 of them.

Couple of thoughts and observations:

– Harris County remains with 24 districts, not 25 as it had in 2001-2011. El Paso goes from having five full districts to four full districts plus a piece of HD74. Fort Bend gains a district, Travis gains a piece of the very Republican HD19; that district number used to be in east Texas, held by Rep. James White who is going for a promotion, and is now split into multiple other districts. Denton goes from four full districts to four plus a partial, while Collin goes from four plus a partial to five plus a partial; HD57 moves from east Texas to Denton, HD60 moves from west-ish Texas to Collin. HD76 moves from El Paso to Fort Bend.

– Rep. Erin Zwiener, whose HD45 had been Hays plus Blanco counties, is now shown in the very Republican HD73, which is Comal plus a piece of Hays; the new HD45, shown as having no incumbent at this time, is the rest of Hays. It’s also pretty Democratic, and I’d guess Rep. Zwiener will be househunting soon, if there are no changes to this piece of the map.

– Rep. Ryan Guillen’s HD31 was already the most Trumpy Dem-held district, and it’s the most Republican district held by a Dem, followed by Rep. James Talarico’s HD52. There’s one Republican-held district that now shows as clearly blue, and that’s Rep. Jeff Cason’s HD92 in Tarrant County. Not sure what he did to anger the redistricting gods.

– On a personal note, the Heights has been reunited in one district, HD145, after a decade of being split between HDs 145 and 148. I need to check this for the Senate map as well, to see if the SD06/SD15 dichotomy is still there.

– I’m sure there will be changes to this map, and as the story notes there are some unhappy Republicans; it’s nearly impossible to satisfy everyone, and the needs of the many etc etc etc. For what it’s worth, using Derek Ryan’s metrics, there are 18 districts where the Republican vote is between 40 and 50 percent, and 31 districts with the Republican vote between 50 and 60 percent. Nearly all of the latter are in the places that have been trending Democratic – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Collin, Denton, etc. A few of the former include South Texas districts that went the other way in 2020, but most of the rest are like the first group. I’ve said many times that the Republicans had to decide what their risk appetite was, and they have. If the current trends don’t at least slow down for them, this could really blow up on them.

I’m sure they’re aware of that, and they have a plan, or at least a hope, to hold on to enough of what they have to stave off disaster. All of this is without addressing the obvious racial inequities in the map, of which I’m sure we’ll hear plenty as the lawsuits begin to get filed. It’s never boring at this time of the decade, that’s for sure.

El Paso is doing all right with Delta

Good for them, let’s hope it lasts.

While some other metro areas like Austin reported record high numbers of COVID-19 patients in their area hospitals just last month, and while statewide hospitalizations came close to eclipsing the January peak of 14,218, El Paso-area hospitals, which serve nearly a million West Texas residents, haven’t come close to their previous highs.

El Paso’s peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations was just over 1,100 in mid-November, said Wanda Helgesen, director of BorderRAC, the state’s regional advisory council for local hospitals.

On Thursday, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in El Paso was 127.

In fact, the city’s daily hospitalization numbers haven’t broken 200 since March, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, have occasionally seen their ICUs fill up and are having the same staffing problems as the rest of the state, she said, but have so far been able to handle the uptick.

Most of the pressure is related to non-COVID patients, many of whom had been waiting to get treatment for other problems, she said.

“We do have a surge of patients but not to the extent that other parts of Texas are having,” she said.

Helgesen and others say much of the credit can be attributed to the area’s high vaccination rate, widespread compliance with masking and social distancing, and a strong partnership among local community and health care leaders.

“It is amazing,” Helgesen said. “It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was an all-out effort.”

The share of COVID-19 tests in El Paso that come back positive is hovering around 6%, while the statewide positivity rate is three times that at 18%.

And while COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, took up more than 30% of hospital capacity in some areas and more than 20% statewide last week, in El Paso they accounted for only 7% of patients in local hospitals.

For a city with one of the state’s highest per-capita COVID-19 death counts, the numbers present a rare glimmer of good news for the traumatized residents of this West Texas border city.

“Compared to the rest of Texas, we’re in heaven,” said Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia, assistant professor of public health at the University of Texas-El Paso. “That doesn’t mean we are free from COVID, but we’re doing much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don’t lie.”

Civic and health leaders say they aren’t ignoring one important fact: El Paso’s surges have been weeks behind the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, so it’s possible that the region’s own delta-fueled spike could still be ahead.

“We aren’t letting our guard down,” Helgesen said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID during the winter surge, said the reason the city and county have enacted recent mask mandates, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on them and in spite of lower numbers, is because the potential for another surge is still real.

“We do worry and we want to make sure that we don’t have any spikes,” he said. “You always want to be proactive and you always want to be prepared.”

The story goes on to recount the huge spike in COVID cases that El Paso experienced last November, which put it in the national news. If you look at the included chart of COVID cases, which tracks El Paso and the state as a whole, the two were mostly in sync except for that giant surge in November, which came between the two big statewide surges, and now, when the statewide rate began to take off in May but El Paso’s stayed more or less where it had been. I’m sure the mask mandate and above-norm vaccination rates have helped with that, but it may also be that enough unvaccinated El Pasoans have had COVID that the overall rate of immunity is high enough to be something like herd immunity. Or maybe they’re just lucky right now, and the curve will begin to turn upward for them eventually. I very much hope that’s not the case, but I think we all know that this pandemic has been persistent and somewhat random about who gets it the worst at a given time. In the meantime, though, keep on keeping on, El Paso.

Bexar County mask mandate back on

And in an update to the original mask mandate lawsuit story, the district court that issues the temporary restraining order that was later stayed by the Supreme Court has now issued a temporary injunction, barring the state from forbidding San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks. Confused? Keep reading.

Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.

“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”

The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.

Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.

In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed … and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community relay on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.

The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.

“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”

See here for the previous report, which noted that the plaintiffs had not exactly been eager to comply with the SCOTx ruling in the first place. This is all separate from the other lawsuit that resulted in a statewide restraining order on Sunday night. As I, a noted non-lawyer, understand it, the purpose of the initial restraining order that was granted was to address claims by the plaintiffs that they are suffering harm right now as a result of the thing they’re suing over – the TRO is to mitigate that harm until there’s an evidentiary hearing. That TRO is what was lifted by SCOTx, who said in effect that any such harm was either insignificant or irrelevant, and no mitigation needed to be in place at this time. The purpose of the injunction is to say that the plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to suggest that they will prevail on the merits, and thus they can get what they are asking for until a final ruling is made. This too can and surely will be appealed, and I would be surprised if it is not stayed, but as before until such time the plaintiffs have gotten what they wanted.

The San Antonio Report adds on.

Arteaga said that like her decision to grant a temporary restraining order last week, the choice to grant a temporary injunction was not made lightly. She acknowledged the testimony of Bexar County resident Michelle Means, who told the court Monday that she did not want to send her youngest child to school with a face mask and was disappointed by the sudden mask mandate issued last week.

“I just wanted to apologize to all those parents, school administrators, the superheroes that we call teachers, for what someone called the equivalent to a legal tug-of-war,” Arteaga said. “Unfortunately, … our children are right in the middle.”

Arteaga’s ruling on Monday is only a temporary extension; the mask mandate will not be permanently in place until the case goes to trial. Once appealed, the 4th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court would also have to rule in the city and county’s favor.

[…]

The city and county must now set a trial date with the state over a permanent injunction.

Arteaga heard from five witnesses during a hearing Monday, with four testifying on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County and one for the state. During the hearing, local officials testified about rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and said the need to require masks in schools was urgent as more of them opened their doors to students.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, making them more vulnerable, said Dr. Junda Woo, who testified in her capacity as the public health authority for San Antonio and Bexar County. She also serves as the medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Though children generally have better health outcomes if they contract the virus, they can still bring it home to older, more vulnerable adults.

“People are out and about more and we have a large number of people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “And the delta variant is more contagious than the earlier version of COVID, where every person who had COVID will infect one or two people. With the delta variant, every person infects eight to nine people.”

Woo also cited rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the area. Those increases are now accompanied by smaller staff numbers at area hospitals compared to previous surges, Woo said.

“As a physician, I really worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “The level of burnout, of anger that I see among health care providers who I have known for years, is at levels I have never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

We’ll see how long it takes for this to get back before SCOTx, and how long it takes them to give Greg Abbott everything he wants. In case you’re wondering, the temporary injunction hearing for the Dallas lawsuit is August 24, so depending on where we are it’s possible we’ll go through this again in that court.

The Trib reports that the general reaction so far to all this is confusion and a mess of differing local actions.

Colleges in Travis County must require masks — but not two hours south in Bexar County. There, officials decided to keep the mandate just to K-12 — a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.

“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

[…]

Amid the legal disarray, many school districts have walked back plans to require masks.

​​Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio imposed a mask order after Bexar County officials convinced a judge to pause Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. But after Sunday’s Supreme Court ruling, the district scuttled its plans.

The same goes for Fort Bend ISD — another district that was set to require masks, but changed course in defiance of Fort Bend County Judge KP George’s mask order for the county, which includes public schools.

Some districts aren’t waiting for the state to challenge local mask orders to reverse course. In Travis County, Eanes Independent School District pulled back its mask mandate after the state Supreme Court decision — even though the decision didn’t apply to Travis County and the county mask mandate remains in effect.

“We will follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match,” the school district posted on Twitter.

Others have stuck with their mandates through the chaos. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio ISDs will continue to require masks despite the Supreme Court order.

In parts of the state where masking orders remain untouched by the legal crossfire, officials are weighing the possibility of expanding the mandate beyond schools and colleges.

Plenty of businesses in Austin have adopted their own masking requirements without a local mandate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. But he hasn’t ruled out mandating masks for private businesses if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals continues to rise — though Adler doesn’t relish the idea.

“We’re all just trying to keep people safe and to keep the economy open,” he said.

It’s a mess, it’s Greg Abbott’s fault, and there should be more resistance to his nonsense. Thank you for attending my TED talk.

And in the meantime, a new player has entered the fight.

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said he would allow exceptions to the mandate, which he plans to make effective Wednesday morning, but did not specify them. He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

[…]

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

“Tonight” was Monday night – as far as I could tell late Monday there were no news stories confirming that such a suit had been filed. I’ll keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

UPDATE: The latest version of the Yallitics podcast does a nice job explaining all the legal mumbo jumbo, in case you still need some help understanding it all.

There needs to be more defiance of Greg Abbott and his no-mandates mandate

I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.

School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.

Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.

[…]

Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.

“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”

Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.

Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.

[…]

It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.

“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.

[…]

Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.

The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.

Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.

Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.

The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.

So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by demography

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts

I return once again to doing cycle-over-cycle comparisons in vote turnout, in this case for State House districts. There are a lot of them, and I’m not going to do them all but I am going to do enough of them that I will split this into two parts. Part One, this post, will group districts by demographic groups. Part Two, to come later, will be to group them by counties of interest.

First up, just to ease ourselves in, are the four big urban districts that are Anglo, wealthy, highly college-educated, and swung hard towards the Democrats since 2012:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
134  -10,943  15,312   6,540  17,771  -4,403  33,083  37,486
047   -2,005  14,218  13,145  27,678  11,140  41,896  30,756
108   -5,942  12,553   8,628  17,929   2,686  30,482  27,796
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573

As discussed before, the columns represent the difference in vote total for the given period and party, so “1216” means 2012 to 2016, “1620” means 2016 to 2020, and “1220” means 2012 to 2020. Each column has a D or an R in it, so “1216R” means the difference between 2016 Donald Trump and 2012 Mitt Romney for the Presidential table, and so forth. In each case, I subtract the earlier year’s total from the later year’s total, so the “-9,951” for SD114 in the “1216R” column means that Donald Trump got 9,951 fewer votes in 2016 in SD14 than Mitt Romney got, and the “56,887” for SD14 in the “1216D” column means that Hillary Clinton got 56,887 more votes than Barack Obama got. “Dem net” at the end just subtracts the “1220R” total from the “1220D” total, which is the total number of votes that Biden netted over Obama. Got it? Good.

Despite the large swings, only the top two are now Dem-held. HD108 managed to remain in the hands of Rep. Morgan Meyer despite being carried by statewide Dems all the way down the ballot, while HD121 still remains somewhat Republican-leaning. I don’t know what magic Republicans have in mind for redistricting, but their hold on these voters is slipping away rapidly. I can’t emphasize enough that Mitt Romney got 60% of the vote in HD134 in 2012, and look at where it is now.

I’ve written plenty about these districts, and I could have included more of them in this table. Most of those you will see later. There’s not much to add except to say that this particular demographic shift has been a huge driver in the overall blue-ing of Texas, and especially of its most populated areas. I don’t know what the future holds, but I don’t see that changing in the near term.

When I mentioned that this post was a look at the districts by demographic groups, I assume your first thought was that I’d take a closer look at Latino districts. Well, here you go:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
051      425  10,783   4,422  19,073   4,847  29,856  25,009
102   -4,430   5,333   2,511  10,832  -1,919  16,165  18,084
148   -1,481   8,555   5,598  10,113   4,117  18,668  14,551
107   -3,023   4,566     718   7,532  -2,305  12,098  14,403
103      -96   7,314   3,535  10,357   3,439  17,671  14,232
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
105   -2,249   4,377   2,900   8,547     651  12,924  12,273
078   -1,129   6,723   6,731   9,618   5,602  16,341  10,739
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
079     -453   7,038   4,976   6,495   4,523  13,533   9,010
075    1,734  11,011   9,747   8,599  11,481  19,610   8,129
104     -777   3,881   2,743   6,042   1,966   9,923   7,957
077   -1,530   5,080   3,539   3,936   2,009   9,016   7,007
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
145   -1,306   5,575   5,291   5,038   3,985  10,613   6,628
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485
076     -260   5,039   3,826   1,635   3,566   6,674   3,108
140     -733   4,433   4,140   1,810   3,407   6,243   2,836
144   -1,051   3,577   4,044   1,480   2,993   5,057   2,064
041    1,664   6,820   8,617   5,201  10,281  12,021   1,740
143   -1,038   3,244   4,483   1,446   3,445   4,690   1,245
022   -1,261  -2,280   1,510   2,254     249     -26    -275
034      620     799   6,012   3,759   6,632   4,558  -2,074
038    1,533   4,706   9,344   2,945  10,877   7,651  -3,226
040    2,384   3,753   8,981   3,433  11,365   7,186  -4,179
037      969   3,764   7,324      36   8,293   3,800  -4,493
036    1,482   5,527   9,847    -480  11,329   5,047  -6,282
039    2,071   3,256   8,411     836  10,482   4,092  -6,390
035    2,007   2,358   8,961   2,163  10,968   4,521  -6,447
042      882   2,195   7,908    -323   8,790   1,872  -6,918
043    2,532     162   8,001   1,059  10,533   1,221  -9,312
080    1,959   1,789   9,567     127  11,526   1,916  -9,610
074    1,127   2,708   9,454  -2,185  10,581     523 -10,058
031    3,017  -1,816  13,479    -412  16,496  -2,228 -18,724

A couple of notes here. Defining “Latino district” is subjective, and I make no claim that my way is optimal. What you see above is almost all of the districts that are represented by a Latino member, plus HD80, which despite being majority Latino is still represented by Democrat Tracy King. I skipped HDs 49 (Gina Hinojosa) and 50 (Celia Israel) because the’re much more Anglo than Latino. HDs 102, 105, and 107 were held by non-Latino Republicans before being flipped by Democrats in 2016 and 2018. HD43 is held by the one Latino Republican in the House, JM Lozano, who won originally as a Democrat in 2008 and then changed parties after the 2010 election. HDs 79 and 90 were held by Anglo Democrats in 2012; Lon Burnam was primaried out by Rep. Ramon Romero in 2014, and Joe Pickett resigned following the 2018 election due to health challenges.

There’s a lot of data here, and I’ll try to keep this manageable. All the districts that showed a net gain for Dems over both elections are in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Travis (HD51), and Tarrant (HD90), plus HD41 in Hidalgo County. In Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant, there were net gains in each cycle. In El Paso, there were big gains in 2016 and more modest gains in 2020, with the exception of HD75, which had a slight gain for Republicans in 2020. HD75 is the easternmost and thus most rural of the El Paso districts. It also still voted 66.5% to 31.9% for Biden in 2020, just for some perspective.

In Harris, all five districts gained in 2016, but only HD148 also gained in 2020. HD145 came close to breaking even, while HDs 140, 143, and 144 all moved towards Republicans; we saw this when we looked at the Harris County Senate districts and talked about SD06. This is the first of several places where I will shrug my shoulders and say “we’ll see what happens in 2022”. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. We’ve discussed this topic numerous times, and as there are forces moving urban and college-educated voters towards Democrats, the same forces are moving rural and non-college voters towards Republicans. The biggest of those forces is Donald Trump, whose presence on the ballot helped Republicans in 2016 and 2020 but whose absence hurt them in 2018. We just don’t know yet what 2022 will bring.

Of the districts that had net Republican gains, HD22 is in Jefferson County (basically, it’s Beaumont; Dade Phelan’s HD21 has the rest of JeffCo plus Orange County) and HD34 is in Nueces County. Jefferson County has been slowly losing population over time, and I think that was a big driver of what happened with HD22. It’s also much more Black than Latino, and thus maybe is a better fit with the next data set, but it has long been represented by Rep. Joe Deshtotel, and this is the decision I made. Nueces County also has the Republican-held HD32 in it, and it showed a net Democratic gain of 1,576 votes over the two cycles, with most of that in 2016 but still a small Dem net in 2020. Its Latino voting age population is about 46%, nearly identical to its Anglo VAP. HD34 was one of the tighter districts even before 2020, and I figure it’s on the target list for Republicans in redistricting.

Most of the other districts are in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Webb counties, and while 2020 was a better year for Republicans in all of them, I don’t think that will necessarily be the case in 2022, a belief driven in part by the incumbency theory and in part by my own wishfulness. That said, as noted before the shifts were more muted downballot, with Trump outperforming other Republicans in those districts. I had my doubts about the durability of Democratic gains in 2016 because of the disparity between the Hillary numbers and the rest of the numbers, and I think it’s fair to have those same doubts here. We do know how it went in 2018, but as before Trump is not on the ballot in 2022. Which force is stronger? Have the underlying conditions changed? I don’t know and neither does anyone else at this time.

HDs 31, 74, and 80 are all cobbled out of smaller counties, and I have much less hope for them, but who knows what the combined effects of the freeze and the Abbott Wall will have. The main thing I took away from analyzing this data is that there was already a Republican shift in 31 and 74 in 2016 with a near miss in 80, though they all rebounded in a Democratic direction in 2018. How much of this was caused by new voters, and how much by swapping allegiances, those are big questions to ponder.

Let’s move on. These are the predominantly Black districts:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
046     -331   7,462   4,363  20,080   4,032  27,542  23,510
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
147   -1,282   3,575   4,571   9,831   3,289  13,406  10,117
109     -914    -500   1,853  11,161     939  10,661   9,722
111   -1,449  -1,155   1,627   8,981     178   7,826   7,648
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
100     -840    -537   2,107   7,799   1,267   7,262   5,995
142      294   2,093   4,685   8,804   4,979  10,897   5,918
131     -642   2,681   4,289   6,642   3,647   9,323   5,676
146   -1,653    -923   2,438   6,798     785   5,875   5,090
139   -1,290   1,216   4,826   6,786   3,536   8,002   4,466
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
141      218    -721   2,594   4,405   2,812   3,684     872
110     -101  -3,010   1,820   3,362   1,719     352  -1,367

HD27 is in Fort Bend, HD46 is in Travis (it’s also much more Latino than Black but has long been represented by a Black legislator, with Dawnna Dukes preceding Sheryl Cole; it is the inverse of HD22 in that way), HD95 is in Tarrant, and HD120 is in Bexar. HD101 in Tarrant County has a higher Black percentage of its population than either HDs 46 or 120, but it’s held by the Anglo Dem Chris Turner, so I skipped it. All the rest are in Harris and Dallas. The range of outcomes here is fascinating. I think what we see in the 2016 results, at least in some of these districts, is a bit of a letdown in enthusiasm from Obama to Clinton, with perhaps a bit of the campaign to dampen turnout among Black Democrats finding some success. Some districts in Harris County like HD141 have had pretty modest growth in population and voter registration as well. I don’t know what the story may have been in HD110, but if one of my Dallas readers would like to offer a few words, I’d be interested in hearing them.

There was some evidence around the country of Trump making modest gains with Black voters, mostly Black men, in 2020. I do see a case for that here, because even as Dems had net gains in 2020 – significant gains, in some of these districts – their share of the total new turnout is smaller than you’d otherwise expect. For example, HD131 voted 80.6% to 18.5% for Biden, but only 60.8% of the extra voters in 2020 voted for Biden. HD131 had voted 84.1% to 13.3% for Hillary in 2016, meaning that Trump cut almost ten points off of his deficit from 2016. This is your reminder that a shift in vote share towards one party is not the same as a shift in total votes towards one party. We’ve had this conversation about Democrats making percentage point gains in some heavily Republican areas while still falling farther behind, and this is that same conversation from the other side.

Finally, here are the four districts represented by Asian American legislators:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
112   -2,140   4,427   5,086  10,634   2,946  15,061  12,115
137     -848   2,147   2,435   4,099   1,587   6,246   4,659
149   -2,592   3,504   8,134   4,645   5,542   8,149   2,607

This grouping is even more tenuous than the Latino districts, mostly because there’s no such thing as a plurality Asian district. Indeed, only HDs 26 and 149, which are the two most Asian districts in the state, are in the top five; HDs 66, 28, and 67 are the next three in line. They will all be covered in the next post in this series. HD137 is mostly Latino and HD112 is mostly Anglo. Like I said, these are the decisions I made. HD26 is in Fort Bend and was won in 2020 by Republican Jacey Jetton, after years of being held by Rick Miller. It was carried by Biden in 2020 and as you can see it has moved pretty heavily Democratic, but it was still Republican enough to be held by them in an open seat race. HD112 is in Dallas and is held by Angie Chen Button, and like HD108 it was otherwise Democratic in 2020. Good luck with redistricting, that’s all I can say. The other two are in Harris County, with HD137 being held by Gene Wu since 2012. It was 63-34 for Obama in 2012 and 67-31 for Biden in 2020. The most curious case for me is HD149, which as you can see followed a pattern similar to the Latino districts in Harris County; I noted this before when I did the Harris County numbers way back when. I’m not quite sure what to make of those totals, but they don’t keep me awake at night. As with the rest, we’ll see what 2022 has in store for us.

Next time, a closer look at some counties of interest. Let me know what you think.

ACLU warns counties to stay away from the Abbott wall

From the inbox:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sent letters today to 34 counties informing top officials that implementing Gov. Greg Abbott’s unlawful plan to engage in immigration enforcement would violate the U.S. Constitution.

The letters, sent to the counties targeted by Abbott, advise against local law enforcement participation in Abbott’s unilateral efforts to set federal immigration policy, arrest and detain immigrants, and deter people from seeking protection in the United States. Noncitizens in the U.S. have the legal right to seek asylum and other protections. Arresting and detaining immigrants due to their immigration status or as a result of enforcing or altering federal immigration law is unconstitutional.

“Gov. Abbott cannot seek to enforce his own version of immigration policy,” said Kate Huddleston, attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “County officials will be in violation of the law if they enforce the governor’s plan. The federal government, not states or local governments, sets immigration policy and enforces immigration law. Yet again, the governor is targeting immigrants and inciting fear and xenophobia in our state. These moves are a cruel distraction from the real problems facing the state, such as fixing the failing state electrical grid.”

The letters also request under the Texas Public Information Act information about guidance that local officials have received from the state, as well as local cooperation with state efforts to arrest immigrants to date, including any arrests or prosecutions by their locality.

In addition, the letters advise localities to train local law enforcement officers to ensure they do not violate the Constitution or federal law when interacting with immigrants. The ACLU of Texas is asking agencies to adopt policies that comply with constitutional policing and limitations on immigration enforcement, including training officers to refrain from making stops based on perceived immigration status, race, ethnicity, or language.

The 34 counties that received the letter are: Brewster, Brooks, Cameron, Crockett, Culberson, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, El Paso, Goliad, Gonzales, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kinney, La Salle, Lavaca, Maverick, McMullen, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Reeves, Starr, Sutton, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and Zavala.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the letter is here. It seems clear that this is a precursor to a lawsuit, serving both as a warning to the counties that if they follow along with Abbott’s folly they will be named in the suit as well, plus an early effort to gather evidence. The Public Information Act request in this letter specifically asks for the following:

1. Any and all records regarding the May 31, 2021 disaster declaration and its implementation;

2. Any and all records regarding Operation Lone Star and its implementation;

3. Any and all records regarding your locality’s participation in or cooperation with Texas Department of Public Safety officials engaged in Operation Lone Star or any other immigration enforcement efforts; and

4. Any and all records regarding arrests and/or prosecutions pursuant to Operation Lone Star, the May 31 disaster declaration, or for immigration-related enforcement purposes by your locality from March 6, 2021, to the present, including but not limited to arrests and prosecutions for criminal trespass, smuggling, or human trafficking.

We’re unlikely to get any of that information from Greg Abbott, so no matter what else happens this should be valuable.

An alternate route to Medicaid expansion

I’m okay with this.

Texas Democrats have tried for years to convince Republican state leaders to increase access to Medicaid. Now they think they have found a way to do it with or without their help.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and lawmakers from 11 other GOP-led states introduced a measure this week that would give money directly to local governments that want to provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans who currently fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.”

The Cover Outstanding Vulnerable Expansion-eligible Residents (COVER) Now Act would allow counties to apply for the money directly with the federal government, and it would prohibit state leaders from retaliating against them if they do.

Doggett said his aim is to avoid conflict with Republicans.

“You have your ideological objections to Medicaid expansion — I don’t agree, but I accept your position,” he said. “At least let those local leaders who want to take advantage of this and who recognize both the health and economic advantages of doing it, at least let them do that, and walk away and see how it works.”

[…]

Doggett estimated that if Houston, San Antonio and Dallas alone signed on to the proposal, half of the state’s eligible uninsured population would gain access. All three cities are led by Democrats and have pushed for Medicaid expansion.

Statewide, more than 1.2 million Texans would be eligible for Medicaid if state officials were to expand the program, according to a study by the The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University

More than two million people are thought to be in the coverage gap today, meaning they make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Most are people of color, and the biggest group is in Texas, a state that has long had the highest uninsured rate in the country.

Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Every Texan, said the new legislation would also increase funding to state health officials for any added administrative costs.

“Congressman Doggett’s bill really recognizes how entrenched the ultra conservative opposition to expansion is in Texas and the need to really connect the dots about what it’s going to take for us to get possibly a million and a half uninsured adults — the vast majority of them working — coverage,” she said.

I don’t know if the reconciliation process that Rep. Doggett envisions for this would be part of the infrastructure package or as a later budget bill, but either way there will be opportunities. I think the odds of it avoiding conflict with Republicans is basically zero, so the more important consideration is how well-defended it will be from Republican attempts to screw with it or obstruct it. We have seen too many examples in recent times of the state having control over federal money intended for local governments that have resulted in all kinds of bad outcomes, from the delays in appropriating COVID relief to the GLO’s screw job against Houston and Harris County. Cut the state completely out of it, and then hope it’s too difficult for a future Republican Congress or President to mess with it.

Assuming this does go through, I would expect quite a few more counties than those three cited would jump at this. Travis, El Paso, Fort Bend, Cameron, Webb, some other South Texas counties, probably Hays, would certainly take advantage. Nueces, Tarrant, and Williamson would be interesting to watch, and I bet this would add some spice to county races in Collin and Denton and maybe Brazoria. It’s possible that some Republican counties, especially ones with hospitals teetering on the brink of financial disaster, might decide to put aside politics and grab the money, as several Republican states have done. I could definitely see this making a huge dent in the uninsured population, and providing some fodder for the 2022 elections as well. It’s mostly a question of how durable it is, and that’s something that Rep. Doggett can work on. Here’s hoping.

More maskless mandate stuff

A bit of a roundup, because there’s so much out there.

Three of Gov. Greg Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they weren’t directly consulted prior to lifting mask mandate

In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.

“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a lobbyist who Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”

Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”

This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said on Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”

Hey, remember the Strike Force? Yeah, no, nobody does. Either you’re going to tell Greg Abbott what he wants to hear, or he won’t listen. What’s the point?

Texas’ largest cities will keep requiring masks in municipal buildings even after statewide mandate ends

Mayors in some of Texas’ biggest cities announced that they will still mandate the use of masks in municipal buildings, even after the statewide mask order ends next week.

Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso’s leaders announced Wednesday and Thursday that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.

“I am going to issue an order mandating masks at all city-owned buildings. We have to do what we are legally allowed to do to get people to wear masks,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Twitter Thursday morning. “We also still need to practice social distancing. And we still need to avoid taking unnecessary risks. The pandemic is not over.”

[…]

In an email, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed that cities are allowed to take this measure “just like private companies can with their property.”

I’m sure he’ll get the Legislature right on that, though.

Speaking of private companies, Texas businesses must decide whether to require face masks. Some worry they could lose customers either way.

“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”

[…]

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.

“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.

There are many ways in this world to be an asshole. Yelling at a retail or restaurant worker who asks you to please observe their mask-wearing policy is one of the most effective ways to identify yourself as among the world’s biggest assholes.

For some Texans who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, lifting the mask mandate is a “slap in the face”.

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn’t his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

“It’s not about taking away anybody’s job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of,” said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks,” she said.

[…]

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott’s announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and “knew a little bit about everything,” was hospitalized and died at age 45.

“For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it’s like a slap in the face,” Flores said of Abbott’s announcement, noting his “happy” tone and the “clapping” people around him.

For Abbott to say “it’s time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal,” she said, “normal is not going to happen for us ever again.”

She said it felt like Abbott “doesn’t care” that counties in the border are “still struggling” even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn’t had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don’t feel it’s safe to gather.

She said Abbott’s decision made her think, “He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up,” she said. “We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven’t we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?”

Though I have to admit, Greg Abbott’s method is pretty effective as well. For more stories, if you’re not fully rounded up yet, here’s a collection from the Chron.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

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. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

What happens when there’s no room for the sick people?

It’s already happening in some parts of Texas, mostly out west.

Sarah Vasquez for the Texas Tribune

Presidio and Brewster counties, home to Marfa and Big Bend, along with nearby Culberson County, lead the state in cases per 1,000 residents in the last two weeks, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. In fact, all of West Texas, including Jeff Davis, Hudspeth and El Paso counties, is ablaze with increasing COVID-19 cases and low on hospital beds.

Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the only hospital in Presidio, has just 25 acute care beds. Culberson County’s 2,200 residents have just Culberson Hospital, where there are 14 beds and two ventilators, but at least one doctor said she doesn’t feel adequately prepared to use them.

Patients in dire condition are often transferred from the small towns to regional hospitals in larger metropolitan areas. But those closest hospital systems in El PasoLubbock and Midland, which have more resources, are already struggling with their own influxes of local cases, leaving doctors and county officials worried a bump in cases from Thanksgiving gatherings will fill beds beyond capacity with nowhere left to send the sickest patients.

“It’s unlikely we’d be able to help them at this point,” said Ricardo Samaniego, the county judge of El Paso, where COVID-19 patients occupy more than 35% of hospital beds.

Without El Paso as an option to send patients, nearby doctors and officials are scrambling.

“It’s a scary feeling to have a critically ill patient with nowhere to go,” said Gilda Morales, a Culberson County commissioner and doctor at Culberson Hospital.

She said that in recent weeks, the county has sent struggling patients to hospitals in San Antonio — more than 400 miles away — including Culberson County Judge Carlos Urias, who’s been there for nearly four weeks.

If a flood of residents need to be hospitalized quickly, and cases in San Antonio and other metropolitan areas swell, Culberson might not have the resources to treat everyone in need, Morales said.

“We’re worried those beds will run out, and then what?” Morales said. “We’re all holding our breath because as much as we told people not to get together for Thanksgiving, the holidays and family give a false sense of security.”

Hospitals across the West Texas region are “bumping capacity and stretched absolutely to the limit,” said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. Administrators have struggled to find open beds, in some cases calling 15 or 20 facilities, he said.

“Everyone is headed the wrong direction,” he said. “Every week is a little worse than the last one.”

In Odessa and in neighboring Midland, the area’s three hospitals serve as “referral centers,” accepting patients from small-town facilities that are ill equipped to treat serious illnesses.

“All of our outlying facilities, they don’t have ICUs or ventilators that can take care of patients long term,” said Dr. Rohith Saravanan, chief medical officer of Odessa Regional Medical Center. The hospital in recent weeks added 34 beds for people with COVID-19, and, as of Tuesday, only four were still empty.

“If we see any more sharp rises, I don’t think our hospitals will be able to keep up with capacity,” Saravanan said.

Scenic Mountain Medical Center in Big Spring is one of those outlying community hospitals. The facility’s seven intensive care unit beds are full, as are 18 overflow beds that fill the hallways.

Just as a reminder, people still have heart attacks and get in car crashes and fall down stairs and get shot. They’re competing for increasingly scarce hospital resources with all of the COVID patients, too. I don’t have any answers for this, or at least I don’t have any answers beyond what I and many others have been saying for months – wear your face mask, avoid indoor gatherings, observe social distancing. More to the point, Greg Abbott doesn’t have any answers, either. That’s a lot more consequential.

Even the White House thinks Texas sucks at COVID response

I mean

The White House Coronavirus Task Force says Texas is in the swing of a “full resurgence” of COVID-19 and the state’s mitigation efforts “must intensify,” while Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders decline to take some of the steps the Trump administration is recommending.

A report issued by the task force before the Thanksgiving holiday calls for Texas to significantly reduce maximum occupancy for public and private indoor spaces and to conduct weekly coronavirus testing of teachers, college students, county workers, hospital personnel and others.

“Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify,” the Nov. 22 report says. “The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing.”

The White House sends such reports to states weekly, but they are not typically made available to the public. The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Three days before the report was issued, Abbott was assuring the public that local officials had been provided with all the tools they need to slow outbreaks, including a requirement that Texans wear masks indoors in public places and when patronizing businesses.

Abbott has also enacted mandatory occupancy reductions — including closing bars — in regions where the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of capacity for seven straight days.

But Abbott has declined to go further, instead focusing his message on treatment, touting a newly approved drug as proof that “the cavalry is coming.”

There are plenty of local officials who would disagree with Abbott’s assertion that they have all the tools they need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said he agreed with the White House report’s findings and implored Abbott to take a harder line or give local officials back the powers they had in the spring.

“We determined what the occupancy limits were going to be in large part. We had the ability to say ‘no,’” said Turner, who took questions from reporters after a holiday-themed event at City Hall. “The tools that we had in March and April, we no longer have. We are not driving this car. County judges and mayors are more like passengers. The state is driving the car.”

In addition to Abbott’s May preemption of local restrictions, bars that collect less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol also can reopen as restaurants, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in August made that easier by broadening the scope of revenue they can count as not stemming from alcohol sales.

“Bars can be open. So, we’re doing what we can to limit gatherings, but that’s a big, big problem,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Commissioners Court. “Because these things have been allowed, we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing again now.”

Measures of the virus’ spread, Hidalgo noted, approximate the levels being reported when she placed the county at its worst, “red” threat level in June.

“It was soon after that that the governor pulled back a little bit, and the numbers kept climbing until finally they peaked at a level where they routinely exceeded base hospital capacity” in intensive care units, she said. “And so if we go much longer without action, we’re going to be in a bad place.”

One option the city does have is a curfew, which has been implemented in El Paso and San Antonio. Turner said he reserves the right to implement one in Houston, but views that as a “nuclear option” that punishes good actors along with the bad.

The mayor said he is trying to keep people alive for the next few months, until vaccines become available and strengthen the fight to contain the virus’ spread.

“My appeal to the governor is to join with us and do the same,” he said.

Remember how they once had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to unlock some of those tools in the first place? Boy, those were the days. The Chron story notes that while the local numbers aren’t as bad as they were in July, they are all on an upward trend. That ain’t good.

What could be done? In addition to letting the locals actually do the things they want to do, Abbott could issue a new mask mandate, with enforceable penalties attached, and take the heat from the wingnuts for it. He could order more enforcement of bar and restaurant occupancy limits, to crack down on the bad actors. It also remains true that Abbott could be exhorting our two Republican Senators to get off their asses and support a big COVID relief bill that would get affected businesses through the next few weeks. Even this wholly inadequate effort would be better than nothing. “Doing nothing while we wait for the vaccine and try out new treatments for the many people who get sick” and “completely shutting down everything with no financial relief for anyone” aren’t the only options available. The Trib has more.

Crossing a red line

Will Greg Abbott notice?

North Texas crossed a critical threshold in the number of hospital patients fighting COVID-19 that could trigger bar closings and lower occupancies at stores and restaurants if such cases don’t decrease within a week.

With more than 2,300 patients testing positive for the coronavirus in the 19-county hospital region, 15.05% of all beds were occupied by a person with COVID-19, according to state data.

Hospitals had been approaching the 15% red line — set by Gov. Greg Abbott in October — for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday as the state continued to report record-breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases. On Friday, Texas reported 2,473 new cases and 51 new deaths — a drastic drop compared to recent results likely due to labs being closed for the holiday.

Currently, most businesses in the area may operate at 75% capacity. But under Abbott’s Oct. 7 executive order, businesses will be forced to limit capacity to 50% if they are in a region where more than 15% of hospital patients have tested positive for the coronavirus for seven consecutive days. The rate must drop below the red line for one week before business capacity can rise again.

“As the number of positive cases grows, our health care heroes need your patriotism and sacrifice,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a statement Friday. “Please put off get-togethers and avoid crowds to protect public health and the economy.”

The 19-county region includes both Dallas and Tarrant counties as well as smaller counties, including Rockwall, Cooke and Hunt.

A total of 8,518 people were in a Texas hospital Friday with COVID-19, the state reported. That’s about 2,400 shy of the state’s peak, set in July.

Nine of the state’s 22 regions reported at least one day above the 15% threshold this week. And another hovered just below it Friday. The region that includes El Paso was by far the worst, with about 35% of all its hospital patients fighting COVID-19.

Abbott on Friday tweeted a rosier outlook, highlighting that the rate of infected patients at El Paso counties had dropped for two weeks in a row, and the state’s positivity rate has been declining.

Earlier this month, Abbott rejected the idea of once again scaling back the economy statewide. Another shutdown would have a disastrous effect, he said. At the time of his comments — just eight days ago — six of the state’s regions were above the line.

At this point, we’ve basically surrendered. I have no expectation that Abbott will take any action, other than maybe to cheerlead treatment options, for those who will be able to use them. If you don’t want to be complicit in this, do your part – wear your mask, maintain social distancing, avoid public gatherings, and so on. I don’t know why our leadership is so terrible, but it is and it’s up to us to keep our own selves safe.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

Prevention > treatment

I mean, more treatments for COVID is a good thing, but you know what’s better? Not getting COVID in the first place. Maybe we can try doing better on that?

Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Lubbock on Thursday to tout a newly approved coronavirus treatment, without saying how many doses are available or announcing any new restrictions to slow the virus’s spread as infections continue to surge.

Speaking at his first news conference on the pandemic in over two months, the governor said the treatment, made by Eli Lilly and similar to the one that President Donald Trump received last month, has already been distributed to Lubbock and other areas with overcrowded hospital systems, including Midland, Amarillo and El Paso.

“They have enough right now where they can begin the process and treat patients at least for the next several days,” Abbott said. He said he expects additional treatments to arrive in the coming weeks, as well as the first few shipments of a coronavirus vaccine, which could arrive by late December and would go to first responders.

“The cavalry is coming,” he said.

The governor added firmly that the state will not be locking down again, a measure used this spring to slow the initial wave of infections, and insisted that local officials have all tools they need to slow local outbreaks, including a mask mandate in place since the summer and mandatory occupancy reductions for regions where the number of COVID-19 patients exceed 15 percent of total hospital capacity for seven straight days.

In a companion article, Abbott gives three pieces of “good news”, which are this new treatment, that new treatment, and the forthcoming vaccines. All of which is great, and I can’t wait till the vaccines are widely available, but none of that really deals with the current crisis. Effective treatments assumes a fully functional health care system, and right now we have overcrowded hospitals and doctors and nurses who are getting thoroughly burned out. I also assume these treatments aren’t free, and in case you’d forgotten the state of Texas is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that if successful would take away health insurance from millions of people – that’s on top of the millions who already don’t have it here in our state. Plus, and I can’t say this often enough, the economy is not going to get back to full steam until people feel safe from the virus. It’s not enough to say “if you get sick we’ll help you get better”, especially if you’re a person who is immunocompromised or has various co-morbidities or doesn’t have sick leave or child care or health insurance. How many more people need to get sick and die before Greg Abbott can be bothered to care?

Greg Abbott has no interest in fighting COVID

It is what it is at this point.

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.

“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.

Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.

“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”

That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.

I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.

Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:

Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.

“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”

[…]

Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.

Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”

In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.

“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.

He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.

“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”

It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.

“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”

In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.

“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”

There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.

What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.

Who’s concerned about the state’s coronavirus spike?

Not Greg Abbott, or Dan Patrick, or Ken Paxton, that’s for sure.

The Oregon governor is calling it a “freeze.” In New Mexico, it’s a “reset.”

Across the country, state elected officials are frantically rolling back their reopening plans to slow the burgeoning surge in coronavirus infections.

But in Texas, Republican leaders remain unwilling to change course in the face of soaring hospitalizations and an early uptick in deaths from the virus that has public health experts increasingly alarmed.

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to impose new restrictions or allow county officials to take additional measures. Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened to strike down locally adopted restrictions. Other requests to further limit gatherings, close nonessential businesses or impose stricter mask requirements have been blocked.

On Friday, a state appeals court halted a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses in El Paso County, where cases have skyrocketed and mobile morgues have been rushed in to handle all the casualties. Paxton and a group of restaurant owners had sued to block the order, claiming the governor has final say on any new restrictions.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement celebrating the appeals court ruling. On Twitter, he added: “We must never shut Texas down again!!”

[…]

Since September, Abbott has relied on a reopening plan that ratchets up restrictions in regions that have growing numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19; the threshold is now seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area.

Few if any other states are using a similar threshold, and public health experts have long cautioned against relying on hospitalizations alone because they provide a delayed glimpse into the state of an outbreak — it takes someone several days to be hospitalized after they contract COVID.

Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.

“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”

Let’s be clear:

1. They don’t care. Abbott doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus. Paxton will sue any local official who tries to take action to save lives. Dan Patrick has never walked back his comments about letting Grandma die so businesses can reopen.

2. They will never give any authority to local officials. If anything, there will be further bills in the upcoming Lege to restrict what local officials can do even more.

3. They will go straight to Defcon 1 the minute the Biden administration attempts to take any action to combat the virus.

How many people get sick and die as a result is not their concern. They could not be more clear about this.

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

We’re number one (million)!

One million COVID cases in Texas. Hooray?

Texas’ grim distinction as the national leader in terms of COVID-19 infections came as little surprise to some local medical experts, who blamed politicians for conflicting messages about the virus and warned the worst is yet to come.

Texas this week breached a milestone of 1 million cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic, recording more infections than any other state in the U.S. For reference, more people have been infected in the Lone Star state than live in Austin, the state’s capitol.

If Texas were its own country, it would rank 10th in terms of total cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, placing it higher than European hotspots like Italy.

The big numbers are not a shock in a state that’s home to roughly 29 million people. The number of cases per 100,000 residents is lower here than in about half of the states in the country. But Texas also had more newly reported cases in the last seven days — an average of about 8,200 — than other large, hard-hit states such as New York, California and Florida. Only Illinois has a higher seven-day average.

Dr. David Callender, president of the Memorial Hermann Health System, called the 1 million cases “a sobering statistic.”

“It’s not a surprise in the context of all that’s happened,” Callender said. “But it’s a significant number — 3 percent of the population — and cause for worry about the trend continuing as we go forward.”

Callender attributed the high number to “too much division” in the attempt to contain the virus.

“To me, politics entered in an inappropriate way,” said Callender. “People making a political statement with their behavior — that the pandemic is a hoax, that no one can make them wear a mask — really interfered with efforts. It was the wrong mindset.”

To be fair, California is a couple of days behind us, and may have passed one million by the time I publish this. Of course, California also has ten million more people than Texas, so.

The state’s positive test rate is now 11.24%, compared to 7.64% a month ago.

Hey, remember when a 10% positivity rate was considered to be a “warning flag” by Greg Abbott? You know, as part of his famous “metrics” for reopening the state?

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Too busy propping up Donald Trump’s ego to deal with this kind of trivia, I suppose.

Meanwhile, in El Paso

The number of coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals has nearly doubled since October, and average infections are at their highest point in almost three months — leaving health officials bracing for a potential crush of hospitalizations going into the holidays.

In El Paso, hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that in early November the Department of Defense sent medical teams to help, and the county has summoned 10 mobile morgues to hold dead bodies. Local funeral homes are readying extra refrigerated storage space, as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the far West Texas city has shot up nearly tenfold since the start of September.

The new wave of infections stands in contrast to the summer surge, when Gov. Greg Abbott held regular press conferences about the virus and mandated that face coverings be worn, earning him the ire of the far-right. Now, state officials seem reluctant to crack down on the virus’ spread by further curtailing economic activity — and are fighting the El Paso county judge’s attempt to impose a curfew and a stay-at-home order in the face of record-breaking cases.

The state will not do anything to help, and you local leaders are not allowed to do anything to help. You’re on your own. If you’re very lucky, maybe you won’t have your health insurance taken away while you recover. Did I mention that disaster and emergency response ought to be a big theme of the 2022 election? Texas Monthly has more.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here.

A first response to the Latino voting (and polling) question

For your consideration:

It’s very much not my intent to pin blame on anyone. As I noted in my post about how voting went in these Latino counties, which includes a lot of RGV counties as well as Bexar and El Paso, I’m just showing what happened. I think Jolt has done a lot of good work, a lot of hard and necessary work, and I salute them for it.

I can’t address the specifics of the numbers cited in those tweets – I don’t have his data, and the public data is quite limited right now. I do have some limited Harris County canvass data, courtesy of Greg Wythe, so I thought I’d bring that in here to continue the discussion. Here’s what I can say about how voting went in the five predominantly Latino State Rep districts in Harris County:


Dist   Trump  Clinton  Trump%  Clinton%  Margin
===============================================
140    6,119   21,009   21.8%     75.0%  14,890
143    8,746   23,873   26.0%     70.9%  15,127
144   10,555   15,885   38.3%     57.6%   5,330
145   10,102   23,534   28.7%     66.8%  13,432
148   14,815   31,004   30.3%     63.4%  16,279

      50,337  115,305   30.4%     69.6%  64,968

Dist   Trump    Biden  Trump%    Biden%  Margin
===============================================
140   10,175   22,651   30.3%     67.4%  12,476
143   13,105   25,109   33.5%     64.1%  12,004
144   14,415   17,174   44.5%     53.0%   2,759
145   15,198   28,200   34.1%     63.4%  13,102
148   20,207   40,821   32.2%     65.0%  20,614

      73,100  133,955   35.3%     64.7%  60,855

The first table is 2016, the second is 2020. Please note that while the percentages for each candidate is their actual percentage for all voters in the district, the totals at the bottom are just the two-candidate values. I apologize for mixing apples and oranges. We should note that while these five districts are the five predominantly Latino districts in Houston, there is some variance. HDs 140 and 143 have the largest Latino population totals by percentage, while the others have a significant minority of Anglo residents. HD144 includes the Pasadena area, while HDs 145 and 148 include parts of the Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. HD148 is probably the least Latino of the five, and is currently represented by Anna Eastman, who won the special election to serve the remainder of Jessica Farrar’s term, though she was defeated in the primary by Penny Shaw.

As you can see, Trump improved on his 2016 performance in all five districts. Biden got more votes than Clinton in all five districts, but had a lower percentage in all but HD148. The reason both Trump and Biden could see an increase in percentage in HD148 is because the third-party share of the vote was so high in 2016 – it was over six percent that year, but looks to be less than three percent this year. Overall, Trump lost these five districts by about four thousand fewer votes than he did in 2016, with about 20K more votes cast.

This is not an eye-popping change like what we saw in some RGV counties was, but it’s still a decline. I don’t know how much of that is from Latinos voting for Trump, and how much is from Anglo voters in these districts turning out for Trump. Jolt’s mission is to turn out Latino voters, and in the aggregate that’s going to be good for Democrats even if there are some rough spots, and even if it’s not quite as good as we might have expected. My approach is not as granular as it could be, so we shouldn’t draw broad conclusions from it. There are plenty of Latino precincts elsewhere in Harris County – HDs 137 and 138 will have quite a few – so there’s much more to be said. This is the data I have right now. Make of it what you will.

So what happened in the Latino counties?

Let’s go to the data:


County       Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden
=============================================
Bexar      240,333  319,550  303,871  440,823
Cameron     29,472   59,402   48,834   63,732
Dimmit         974    2,173    1,384    2,264
El Paso     55,512  147,843   81,235  168,801
Frio         1,856    2,444    2,812    2,421
Hidalgo     48,642  118,809   89,925  127,391
Jim Hogg       430    1,635      831    1,197
Jim Wells    5,420    6,694    7,077    5,094
Maverick     2,816   10,397    6,881    8,324
Nueces      50,766   49,198   64,467   60,749
Presidio       652    1,458      721    1,463
Starr        2,224    9,289    8,224    9,099
Webb        12,947   42,307   18,985   32,442
Willacy      1,547    3,422    2,437    3,097
Zapata       1,029    2,063    2,032    1,820
Zavala         694    2,636    1,490    2,864

Total      453,643  779,320  641,116  931,555

County      Trump% Clinton%   Trump%  Biden%
============================================
Bexar        42.9%    57.1%    40.8%   59.2%
Cameron      33.2%    66.8%    43.4%   56.6%
Dimmit       31.0%    69.0%    37.9%   62.1%
El Paso      27.3%    72.7%    32.5%   67.5%
Frio         43.2%    56.8%    53.7%   46.3%
Hidalgo      29.0%    71.0%    41.4%   58.6%
Jim Hogg     20.8%    79.2%    41.0%   59.0%
Jim Wells    44.7%    55.3%    58.1%   41.9%
Maverick     21.3%    78.7%    45.3%   54.7%
Nueces       50.8%    49.2%    51.5%   48.5%
Presidio     30.9%    69.1%    33.0%   67.0%
Starr        19.3%    81.7%    47.5%   52.5%
Webb         23.4%    76.6%    36.9%   63.1%
Willacy      31.1%    68.9%    44.0%   56.0%
Zapata       33.3%    66.7%    52.8%   47.2%
Zavala       20.8%    79.2%    34.2%   65.8%

Total        36.8%    63.2%    40.8%   59.2%

Webb County totals are early voting only – they have taken their sweet time getting those results. I have no prescriptions to offer, and even if I did, I’d be the wrong person to listen to for them. I’m just reporting what happened. As others have observed, in some counties Biden met or exceeded Hillary Clinton’s numbers from 2016, but Trump greatly increased his numbers from that election. You may recall that in the last NYT/Siena poll, Nate Cohn observed that higher turnout, at least beyond a certain point, didn’t actually benefit Biden, because sufficiently high Latino turnout wasn’t in his favor. Starr County was a particularly shocking example of that, but we see that in some larger counties like Hidalgo and Cameron, and to a lesser extent El Paso as well. In some counties – Maverick, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Willacy – it appears some Clinton voters may have switched to Trump, or not voted while non-participants from 2016 came in. Bexar County was the only clear improvement for Biden. If you had to pick only one county for that, Bexar would be the one, but there’s only so much it can do.

You can look at this two ways. Hillary Clinton netted 346K votes, while Biden netted 290K. That’s not all that much, but there’s the ground we could have gained given the higher turnout as well as the ground we lost. If Biden had performed at exactly the same level as Clinton, he’d have netted 415K votes. Adjust the final score to account for that, and Biden would have lost by four and a half points, instead of almost six. Wouldn’t have mattered in this case, but it wouldn’t have taken much. Plus, you know, better to make your task easier rather than harder.

Like I said, I have no solutions to offer. Plenty of smart people have plenty of ideas, and quite a few of them were raising issues before the election. Might be a good idea to listen to them. All I’m saying is that whatever happened here, it wasn’t what we wanted. If we want to avoid a repeat, we better get to work.

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.