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Harris County

2021 Day Seven EV report: After the weekend

Let’s get right to it: These are the early voting totals for the 2021 election after Sunday:

Mail ballots: 36,517
In person: 19,901

You can see the full Day Seven report here. The “voters by type” breakdown on the last page only goes through Saturday, so I don’t have the most up to date numbers on drive through voting, but it’s a pretty small fraction of the total.

The thing that I noticed when I looked at the numbers was that Saturday was not the biggest day of in person voting, as I had expected it to be. My first thought was that this was an outlier, and that there had to be some reason for it that I would need to speculate on. Turns out, this is the new normal, at least for odd-numbered years. Look at the EV daily totals for 2019, 2017, 2015, and a few elections before then, and you’ll see that Saturday is a good day for turnout, but generally only the second best day. It’s the Friday that leads the pack, and that has been true for odd-numbered years going all the way back to 2009, the last year in which Saturday led the first week’s totals.

Odd years continue to be unlike the even-numbered years in that early voting is a much smaller piece of the pie. I consider the year 2008 to be an inflection point in voter behavior, in that it was the first year of any in which more than half of the total vote was cast before Election Day. That very much persists in even-year races, with nearly 88% of the vote in 2020 being cast early. Looking at previous Presidential years, 2016 followed this year’s pattern of Saturday not being the biggest day of the first week, but in 2012 and 2008 Saturday led the way. 2020 was a different kind of outlier because of the extra week of early voting and the supercharged early energy, but there you can see that there was a significant dropoff on Saturday after that frenzied first week.

So what has happened? Two things, I would guess. One is just that we are all used to voting early, even those of us who persist in waiting until Election Day. And two, because early voting is such a part of the fabric now, it’s more common for people to do it as part of their workday routine. I have voted during my lunch hour most years, and I think that’s pretty common. Whatever the reason, Saturday is not the huge narrative-setting day that it used to be in the EV process.

The rest of this week, if previous patterns hold, will wind up exceeding the first five days. I kind of think that won’t be the case, because of the large number of mail ballots, but we’ll see. In any event, the norm is for the first two to four days of this week to be similar to last week, with Friday being the biggest day of the whole period. I don’t know if that’s what we’ll get this time, but we’ll see. Have you voted yet?

Harris County Commissioners Court begins the process of approving its new maps today

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Rodney Ellis:

Every decade, after each U.S. census, states, cities and counties engage in a process called redistricting, where they adjust the boundaries of their governing districts to reflect changes in population growth and other factors.

For the last six weeks, Harris County has held public meetings across the county to hear your thoughts.

Based on what we learned, and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, we’re proposing new boundaries for county commissioner districts that are reflected in the map posted here. Our plan seeks to keep communities of interest together and brings together areas that have been split apart for years.

For too long this county has been intentionally divided by precinct boundaries that deny people the opportunity to elect representation that accurately reflects the views of the majority of our communities. The boundaries proposed cease that continued suppression, and allows the voices and views of the people to be reflected by those who represent them.

In Harris County, we’re committed to a fair and transparent process. That’s why we held public meetings across the county and why we are taking public comment now on the proposed maps.

You will hear some of my colleagues complain – and complain loudly. Sadly, they are more concerned about preserving their political power and getting headlines than they are about getting better representation for you.

You can provide YOUR feedback on the proposed maps in person or virtually. Public hearings on the adoption of a redistricting map in Harris County will be held on Tuesday, October 26 and Thursday, October 28. You MUST complete this form in order to testify.

  • For questions or assistance with the Appearance Request Form, please contact [email protected] or 713-274-1111.
  • If you cannot attend, you can still let your voice be heard by submitting your written comments to [email protected]

Redistricting will impact the direction of this county for years to come. We will continue to fight for you to have the fair representation that everyone in Harris County deserves.

For more information on the Harris County redistricting process, you can visit the Harris County Attorney Office’s redistricting page.

See here for the background. You can expect the wailing and gnashing of teeth among Republicans who just want a nice, fair, inclusive, mapmaking process – you know, like the one we just had – to be turned up to eleven. I can only imagine the lawsuits they may file afterwards. The HCDP has put out its support of the Ellis map along with a tout sheet about what the new map will do, and undo. This is going to be messy but exciting.

2021 Day Five EV report: A one week checkin

One work week, anyway. Here are the vote totals after five days of early voting. The first thing to notice is that about 70% of the votes cast so far have been by mail:

Mail ballots = 36,517
Early in person = 14,635
Drive-thru = 755

I note that the graphical breakdown of votes by type has one less vote by mail that the table totals do, no doubt an editing error. Whatever the case, there were nearly 52K votes cast through Friday, in an election with no major headliner to bring the people out. In 2017, there were 58,429 total votes cast as of the end of early voting. We’ll likely surpass than by Tuesday. That doesn’t mean we will have wildly higher turnout this year than we did in 2017. In 2017, about 59% of all votes were cast on Election Day. I suspect we will have a higher percentage of early votes this time, quite possibly because of the sharp increase in voting by mail. There are also more registered voters now that there were in 2017 – 2,233,533 in 2017, 2,431,457 in 2020, I don’t know exactly how many now but surely no less than that. More total voters may still be lower turnout as a percentage of RVs.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll do another update either Monday or Tuesday with the weekend numbers, and then again on Sunday with the final EV totals. We can make our guesses about where things will end up then. Have you voted yet? I did, and I like the new machines – the touch interface was simple and easy to use, and the paper receipt was cool, though perhaps it will be a bit of a bottleneck when we have a higher turnout election. What did you think?

Commissioners Court redistricting has begun

The Republicans are apoplectic. I have no sympathy.

The two Republican Harris County commissioners say a proposal by Democrats to re-draw commissioner precinct boundaries will cut services and dilute the influence of conservative residents.

The proposed map by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis would significantly alter the shapes of precincts 3 and 4, the two represented by Republicans. Precinct 4 would arch along the county’s northern edge from Katy to Baytown, while Precinct 3 would be entirely west of Loop 610.

Commissioners Court [took] input from the public on redistricting at a hearing Thursday at 4 p.m.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey called Ellis’s map “the most corrupt plan I have ever seen my 45 years in doing work in Harris County.”

“The objective is control,” Ramsey said Thursday on the Michael Berry Show. “The objective is to create the most chaos as possible, because (the Democrats) cannot stand the fact that 3 and 4 function very well. … It drives them crazy, so they want to blow it up.”

He said he is particularly concerned that Precinct 4 would by far have the largest share of residents living in unincorporated areas, who rely on the county for services like parks and community centers. Ramsey predicted a strain on that precinct would lead to cutbacks.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the Ellis map, if approved, could allow Democrats to finally capture a fourth seat on Commissioners Court, which would allow them to set tax rates without any input from Republicans. In an email to constituents, Cagle predicted that would lead to future tax increases.

Cagle has proposed a map of his own. It largely keeps the current shapes of the precincts intact, while ceding parts of precincts 3 and 4 to precincts 1 and 2.

Oh, boo hoo hoo. Commissioner Ramsey deserves what he’s getting. I like Commissioner Ellis’ response, as noted here.

“Any maps that I vote for will be fair and designed to provide better representation for all Harris County residents. Has Commissioner Ramsey complained about the radical partisan racially discriminatory gerrymandering his Republican colleagues just rammed through the state legislature?” said Commissioner Ellis in response to a FOX 26 request for comment.

I think we know the answer to that. Here’s the current map. The Ellis plan is here, and if you scroll down to page 5, you’ll see the partisan splits from the 2018 Governor’s race, the 2020 Presidential race, and the 2020 Senate race. I feel pretty confident if those are the numbers. The Ellis map looks a lot like the third map suggested by Benjamin Chou, which we discussed in August.

You can see more maps here. There’s one drawn by Commissioner Ramsey, and a demonstration map drawn by Dem consultant Robert Jara (I assume it’s him, the link just says “Jara map”), which would make all four precincts Democratic, though with sufficiently close margins that I’d feel pretty nervous about it. We’ll know more about what is happening by the time you read this on Friday, but it looks to me like we’ll get a map approved pretty quickly – given that the state and Congressional maps are all in the hopper, we’re going to have primaries at the usual time, which means filing season opens on November 15 as usual. So yeah, this is going to move quickly. Campos has more.

A long story about the bail industry

It’s complicated.

Judges set bail, but it’s the bondsmen who decide how much a defendant pays to get out of jail.

The long-held 10 percent standard — with defendants or their loved ones paying a tenth of the bail amount to a private company — is not gospel anymore in Harris County and likely never was. People have been securing their release from jail on lower fees for years, according to county data and bail agents.

Bondsmen recently have been accepting lower-percentage fees on an increasing number of violent felonies. The discount makes it clear that judges are not always determining what people have to pay to get out of jail, and the implications for defendants, victims and the system are far-reaching.

“That means the cash bond system itself is serving a danger to the community,” state District Judge Chris Morton said. “Any time there’s a for-profit aspect to criminal justice, that creates the opportunity for oppression and inconsistencies in justice.”

Bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail. A bond is posted on a defendant’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Such a surety bond is like a security deposit.

Bail is not intended as a punishment. It is rather a way of securing a defendant’s agreement to abide by certain conditions and return to court. The standard for bail in most jurisdictions — and other states — is that a bail agent requires 10 percent of the bail amount plus collateral to secure a defendant’s freedom. In Harris County, bail companies rarely pay in full and give the court an equivalent of a provisional IOU with the backing of insurance agencies, said County Court at Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum.

If a defendant skips court, prosecutors can move to revoke or forfeit the defendant’s bond. Revocations trigger an arrest warrant and their return to court upon their capture. Forfeitures are a more tedious process that results in the court keeping the bail amount — but only after a judge agrees and prosecutors successfully sue to seize the money.

In Texas, the 10 percent figure is referenced in Texas Insurance Code, which states that payments above that amount could be subject to regulations. No minimum is required.

[…]

Profits diminished for bail companies after Harris County began adopting bail reform in 2017, requiring cash-free releases for most poor misdemeanor defendants. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, with about 80 permitted as of September to operate, records show.

One estimate from monitors tracking the implementation of bail reform indicated that bail bond earnings in Harris County went from around $3.5 million in 2015 to slightly over $500,000 in 2019.

The dwindling bail landscape caused agents to adapt or close up shop. Many padded their business with felony cases, some carrying higher bonds and more risk of defendants skipping court. Some bail agents are relying more on payment plans and are not asking for collateral — a house, car or other possession.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed hundreds of court records and found that bail bondsmen for years have been granting less than 10 percent rates on surety bonds. A sampling of data for the first six months of 2021 supported bondsmen, defense attorney and judges’ anecdotes that bail agents are more frequently charging lower fees, sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent, at times on more violent crimes. Some of the defendants are then put on payment plans for the remainder of the money.

“We’re business people,” said Michael Kubosh, an at-large city councilman and former bondsman. “You collect what you can.”

While seemingly better for defendants, the lower fees are concerning to lawyers and jurists. Several judges worry that they no longer can count on defendants paying 10 percent for their pretrial release; others feel that even at lower rates, bail is still too much for some.

Authorities believe some defendants have committed more crime to pay bail for themselves and others, according to court records.

Jose Luis Perez — on bond for a prior offense — was charged in March with robbing a woman at gunpoint; he told officers he needed cash to pay for the bail, meaning he was likely on a payment plan, prosecutors said. He faced additional charges in federal court, and the state case was later dismissed.

Prosecutors say that the lower payments also minimize the pressure to return to court, because more money down means defendants would feel beholden to family members who put their livelihoods on the line to free them.

Advocates, meanwhile, do not believe any amount of cash bail keeps the public safe, and they feel bail discounts and payment plans show how many defendants — primarily poor people of color — remain on the hook with private enterprises after securing their freedom.

There’s more, so read the rest. As the story notes, only the US and the Philippines have this sort of cash bail system, and that just seems to me like a bad place to be. As you know, I’m a believer in getting rid of cash bail as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. We’ve taken a small but important step forward in Harris County, but there’s still a lot to do and a lot of resistance to overcome. This story will give you a feel for some of that.

2021 Day One EV report: Everyone likes voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is also our first election with new voting machines:

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

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

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

One more thing, because this is cool:

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

Early voting starts today for the 2021 election

Time to strap on the pads and get yourself out to the polling places:

A sample ballot for Harris County is here – note that it covers all of the local elections, so much of what you see will not be on your specific ballot. Early voting hours will be 7 AM to 7 PM every day except Sunday the 24th (12 PM to 7 PM) and Thursday the 28th, which will be 7 AM to 10 PM with 24-hour voting at select locations. You can see a map of locations here – there are a lot of them – and you can use the “find your nearest polling place” utility here. Note that there are also some drive-through locations. This is because the new voter suppression law does not take effect until next year. Enjoy these things while you still can.

Here’s a list of all my interviews for the cycle:

Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Joshua Rosales, HISD District IX
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

There are also the Constitutional amendments. If you’d like someone to explain them all to you with advice on how to vote, the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast, with guest Andrea Greer, has you covered. This is going to be a low turnout election, you should be in and out in minutes at any location, so get out there and make your voice heard.

The Lege is now 3/4 done with redistricting

All but the Congressional maps are done. They’re just plowing through it.

The Texas Legislature is nearing the end of its work to incorporate a decade’s worth of population growth into new political maps — pressing forward with efforts to cement GOP dominance of the statehouse and deny voters of color a greater say in who gets elected.

In the final stretch of a 30-day special legislative session, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate on Friday almost simultaneously signed off on new political maps for the opposite chamber, sending them to Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, for his signature. The votes were largely procedural as neither chamber made any changes. It’s customary for each chamber to defer to the other in drawing up maps for its own members, but both must give them a vote.

By a vote of 81-60, the House granted approval to a Senate map that would draw safe seats for Republican incumbents who were facing competitive races as their districts diversified over the last 10 years.

The Senate gave an 18-13 vote to a House map that would fortify the Republican majority of the 150 districts, bolstering those that had grown competitive over the last decade and devising new battleground districts.

The House also signed off on a new map for the Republican-controlled State Board of Education, which sets standards for Texas public schools. Still left on the docket is a House vote on a redraw of the state’s congressional map that would largely protect incumbents in Congress while reducing the number of districts in which Black and Hispanic residents make up the majority of eligible voters. That vote is expected Saturday.

If adopted, the maps could remain in place for the next 10 years, though it’s all but certain that they will face legal challenges that could result in changes.

[…]

Sixteen Republican incumbents will be drawn into safe districts for reelection, while two Senate seats being vacated by Republicans would almost certainly go to new GOP candidates over Democrats next year based on the percentage of voters in the district who voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in last year’s presidential race.

Democrats would also likely lose Senate District 10 in North Texas, represented by Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth. That would shift the Senate’s partisan makeup from the current 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats to 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats under the proposed map.

Voters of color in the district, which sits entirely in Tarrant County, have banded together with white voters over the last decade to elect their candidates of choice. Its eligible voters are 21% Black, 20% Hispanic and 54% white.

But under the proposed map, SD 10’s Black and Hispanic populations are split into two other districts with majority-white electorates.

The voters who remain in the newly drawn District 10 would also see major changes. Black and Hispanic voters in urban areas of south Fort Worth would be lumped in with seven rural counties to the south and west that would drive up the district’s population of white eligible voters to 62% while diminishing its population of voters of color.

Tarrant County House Democrats warned that federal courts had ruled that a similar attempt to redraw the district last decade was discriminatory. They offered multiple amendments to keep District 10 entirely in the county.

[…]

The House’s new map also pulls back on Hispanic and Black voters’ potential influence in electing their representatives.

The map brings the number of districts in which Hispanics make up the majority of eligible voters down from 33 to 30. The number of districts with Black residents as the majority of eligible voters would go from seven to six. Meanwhile, the number of districts with a white majority among eligible voters would increase from 83 to 89.

The map moved through the Senate chamber without any discussion, save for an earlier objection from state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley, during a Senate Redistricting Committee meeting Friday morning.

Lucio denounced a revision to the map that would carve up predominantly Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley in service of creating a new competitive House district in the typically blue region. The change, forced by a member who does not represent the affected districts, blindsided the House members from the area.

“Members, this is my fourth redistricting session,” Lucio told other members of the committee. “In my time in the Legislature, I have never seen such blatant disregard for the process.”

Meanwhile, Republicans shot down Democratic proposals to create new opportunities for Hispanic or Black Texans to control elections.

State Rep. Todd Hunter, the Corpus Christi Republican serving as the House’s chief map-drawer, has previously argued the map “achieves fair representation for the citizens of Texas” while complying with federal law.

The redraw will ultimately aid Republicans’ ability to control the chamber for years to come.

The House map creates 85 districts that would have favored Trump at 2020 levels of support and 65 that would have voted for Biden. The current partisan breakdown of the House is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, though Trump only won 76 of the current districts in 2020.

See here and here for some background. The speed with which these maps have been approved is I believe one part there being basically no changes proposed in the other chamber, and one part a sense of urgency on the legislators’ part to get the hell out of town already. I can hardly blame them for that, but in the end it’s up to Greg Abbott.

On the subject of litigation over these maps, on claims of racial discrimination and voting rights violations, I remain pessimistic about the likelihood of any redress from the courts. Not because I think the maps are fair and accurately reflect the population, but because I have no expectation that this Supreme Court will countenance any voting rights claims. We could still do something about that at a federal level, but until Senators Manchin and Sinema let go of their bizarre obsession with the filibuster as it is currently defined, that ain’t going anywhere.

That said, I am reasonably optimistic about the potential for gains in the State House, if not in 2022 then in the coming years. The Chron story on the passage of these maps is a reminder of why.

The new Texas House map will protect Republican control by shedding Democratic-leaning areas where the party has lost support and moving those to blue districts while shoring up red ones.

That give-and-take is evident in west Harris County where two red districts, represented by Republican state Reps. Mike Schofield of Katy and Lacey Hull of Houston, are redrawn to include red-leaning precincts from Democratic state Rep. Jon Rosenthal’s nearby district; Rosenthal’s district will get blue-leaning areas now represented by the two Republicans.

As the state’s demographics change, however, there are only so many reliably red areas from which to pull. That meant for some districts, the best Republicans could do was make changes to benefit incumbents.

For example, the Energy Corridor district represented by state Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who is not seeking re-election, would give up some GOP precincts to Hull. Former President Donald Trump won Murphy’s district by 4 percentage points in 2020, but under the new map, that margin would drop to 2 points.

You’ve seen me make a version of this argument in previous posts. In the House, unlike the other maps, the Republicans were constrained by the county rule, which did not allow them to extend mostly rural districts into urban and suburban counties to dilute their Democratic communities. That forced them to draw a large number of districts with a relatively modest margin for Donald Trump, and the large majority of them are in counties where the trends have been moving strongly in a Democratic direction. Things can certainly change, and any given election can favor one party or the other, but overall that seems like a highly unstable equilibrium for the GOP.

The fourth map is of course the Congressional map. The Senate approved a map a few days ago, and the House committee approved it with no changes, as House Redistricting Chair Todd Hunter insisted that any amendments be made on the House floor. That puts them in position to be done with the entire business by the time the session ends, though I expect there to be a big fight when this map comes up for debate. The proposed map does some truly outlandish things to break up urban counties and communities of color, which I’m sure will draw a ton of heat and more threats of litigation from Dems. I expect them to get the job done, though if there are changes it will have to go back to the Senate for final approval. If it needs to go to a conference committee, that will almost surely require a fourth special session to finish it off. God help us all. Daily Kos has more.

More on the Mac Walker ballot name situation

Good move by HISD.

Mac Walker

Houston ISD on Tuesday took responsibility for failing to include the nickname of a trustee candidate when it entered his name in a county elections office portal.

Lee “Mac” Walker, vying for district 7, said last week he learned of the issue when a voter asked whether he was on the ballot. On his application to run, he listed his preferred name — Mac — as the name he wanted identified on the ballot. He has been campaigning under the nickname.

He is listed on the ballot, however, simply as Lee Walker.

“HISD acknowledges and takes responsibility for the error in inputting Mr. Walker’s name into the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office Entity Portal,” district officials said in a statement Tuesday. “Corrective actions and systems in the Office of Board Services have been put into place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

County elections officials said last week the name cannot be changed on the ballot, citing the resources and time required to perform a logic and accuracy test for the entire election before voting begins.

HISD said it will use both Walker’s legal and preferred name in election notices it is required to publish in a newspaper, on the bulletin board used for posting board meeting notices and on its website.

The district said it additionally will publish election notices in the Forward Times, La Voz and Vietnam Post and mail notices of the Nov. 2 election to registered voters in all five of the single-member districts having an election.

See here for the background. Sometimes you make a mistake that can’t be corrected. When that happens, you can at least make amends, and do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what HISD has done here, and as someone who wants fair elections, I appreciate it. It’s not the best of all possible situations, but it was the best they could do given what had already happened. That’s all you can ask.

The fate of the Paxton trial location is once again with the CCA

Best mugshot ever

As you recall, the very long-awaited securities fraud trail of Ken Paxton is ticketed to go back to Collin County after the First Court of Appeals denied a request for an en banc hearing to reconsider the court’s previous ruling that had upheld the Harris County district court judge’s ruling from last year (and was itself a confirmation of a previous ruling). Special prosecutor Brian Wice has argued that the reason for that ruling is in error, and as such has filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn the First Court and keep the trial in Harris County.

The main thrust of the petition is that the First Court erred in its ruling, and for a detailed explanation of why it erred can be found here. The TL;dr of that is basically that Team Paxton has been playing fast and loose with its arguments about the original judge’s appointment to the case – if you read that petition, you will see multiple uses of the word “sandbag” or “sandbagging” – and it makes heavy use of the dissenting judge’s opinion from that First Court case. The Court of Criminal Appeals is notoriously pro-prosecutor, except when it isn’t, so who knows what they’ll do and who knows how long it will take. But we are at a point in this ridiculously long and drawn-out saga where the next step will be for the question of where the trial should be is resolved, and we will presumably move on to fighting about the actual trial. (There are still questions about the pay for the special prosecutors, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

Anyway. Since people like to make snarky comments on Facebook and Twitter about how long Ken Paxton has been under indictment without having gone to trial, the least I can do is update you on the legal bits and pieces as we wend our way every so slowly towards that day. You’re welcome.

What’s in a ballot name, 2021 edition

This is unfortunate.

Mac Walker

A candidate for the Houston ISD Board of Education said Friday his name has been printed incorrectly on ballots and county elections officials said it is too late to change the name.

Lee “Mac” Walker, running for the district 7 seat, said the issue came to his attention last weekend when a voter emailed to ask if he was on the ballot. The voter sent him a picture of the ballot, which showed his legal name, Lee Walker, instead of the nickname he has gone by and campaigned under, he said.

Walker’s notarized application shows he wrote he wanted his name to be displayed as Mac Walker on the ballot, according to district records. The application has a notary’s stamp on the bottom. A sample ballot shows his name appears as Lee Walker.

An HISD spokesperson said Friday evening the district was looking into questions from the Chronicle.

“I have gone by Mac since the day I was born,” Walker said. “I am just disappointed.”

[…]

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told Walker changing the language of the ballot would require a new logic and accuracy test for the entire election, according to an email sent to Walker that he shared with the Chronicle.

That test requires voting more than 15,500 ballots, five days and more than 60 staffers. Post-test requirements include multiple tasks that would be “impossible” to complete with the test before Wednesday, when equipment and materials will be delivered to early voting sites, Longoria wrote in the email.

“In short: at this point in our election preparations, making a correction in even one race would imperil our ability to start early voting for all the 44 entities on the ballot,” Longoria wrote. “After consultation with the Office of Texas Secretary of State, I’ve decided to move forward with our course of action to avoid derailing the entire Nov. 2nd election.”

Walker forwarded me the email correspondence he had with HISD and the Harris County Elections office regarding this snafu. The error is HISD’s, and at this point it appears to be too late to fix it. (Walker said in his email to Isabel Longoria that he “notified your office on Monday” and that he was disheartened to hear her say that “time is the real bottleneck in the matter when it took you four days to respond”.) I have not spoken to anyone at HISD or in the Elections office – I received this correspondence Friday night after I had gone to bed – so I have no further context to offer for any of this. I am in favor of people appearing on the ballot by their preferred name (within reason), and by any reasonable standard, “Mac Walker” is the name that should be on this ballot. It’s unfortunate that it likely will not happen in this race. Given that, the best I can do is to let you know the situation. Hope this helps.

Senate passes Congressional map

Start the litigation countdown. Yes, I know, this still has to pass the House, but still.

The Texas Senate approved a map Friday that would largely protect incumbents in Congress while reducing the number of districts in which Black and Hispanic residents make up the majority of eligible voters — stymieing the growth of the state’s Democratic Party representation in Washington, D.C.

The congressional map is focused more on protecting incumbents than on growing the power of the dominant Republican Party in the state by flipping districts from blue to red. But the map, proposed by GOP state Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, helps Republicans by increasing the number of districts that would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and decreasing those that would have gone for Joe Biden.

In anticipation of federal challenges to the map, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the Senate, said in a statement Friday that the proposal approved by the chamber was “legal and fair” and represented a “commitment to making sure every Texan’s voice is heard in Washington, D.C.”

[…]

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, proposed a map that would create three additional districts where Hispanics made up the majority, bringing the number of those districts to 10.

But Republicans rejected the proposal, with Huffman saying the amendment had been drafted less than 24 hours before the Senate’s vote on the maps and would result in a “detailed and painstaking racial gerrymander” in North Texas to draw a new Hispanic-majority district in the same area as the current Congressional District 33, represented by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

Gutierrez accused Republicans of racially discriminating against voters of color.

“How else do we describe a situation where Texas gains new political power because of the physical presence of millions of Black, Brown, and Asian bodies, and yet the political establishment does not give those very Texans the ability to elect more candidates to represent them?” he said in a statement. “It is an insult to the foundations of our democracy.”

Under the proposed maps, voters of color may end up with less representation in the congressional delegation. The new map drops the number of districts in which Hispanics make up a majority of eligible voters from eight to seven, and the districts in which Black Texans make up a majority of eligible voters from one to zero.

The number of districts where whites make up a majority of eligible voters goes up to 23 although the state’s white population — which increased by just 187,252 — was swamped by the growth of people of color.

See here for more on the initial map, which looks to be largely the same as the final map. Which we know is totally fair and representative because Dan Patrick says it is. The House will likely make some changes, but it seems unlikely to be substantively different. I’ll say this much, they’ve given Harris County Democrats a new district to target, and I feel confident that any Republican who wins the new CD38 is never going to get a free pass. I’ll be interested to see who files for this on the Democratic side.

As for the coming litigation, the arguments are clear, it’s just a matter of what SCOTUS will allow in the post-Voting Rights Act world that it wants. I will say again, it’s not too late for a new Voting Rights Act to be passed. We’re going to need an upgrade in the US Senate to make that happen, I fear.

Speaking of litigation, I would love to know what the status of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit is. That had to do with the legislative maps, not the Congressional map, but given the speed with which those maps are moving along, we will be reaching a point of no return soon. Let’s at least have a hearing on this one before events make it moot, OK?

UPDATE: I should have spent more time looking at the District Viewer, because I have just now realized that this map moves me out of CD18, where I’ve been for 30 years, and into CD29. I feel a little weird about that.

GLO still screwing Houston on Harvey aid

This shit has got to stop.

Harris County and the city of Houston this week blasted the Texas General Land Office’s revised plan for distributing billions in federal Hurricane Harvey aid, saying that while it is an improvement over the $0 the state originally awarded the local governments, it still is woefully inadequate.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer, said in a letter Wednesday that GLO’s proposal to send $750 million to Harris County and still nothing to Houston ignores what Congress wanted when lawmakers approved the aid package for Texas in 2018 — to help communities devastated by Harvey.

“It is unconscionable that the State would expect that this amount in any way represents an amount that is sufficient to address the extensive mitigation needs in Houston and elsewhere in Harris County,” the pair wrote the land office.

The city and county want at least $1 billion each, which they say is fair since that sum would be roughly half of the $4.3 billion in federal aid that GLO manages and Harris County has about half of all the residents in the 49 counties eligible for the funds.

They suggested the state could abandon its proposal to send more aid to regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council, to free up more money for Houston and Harris County.

[…]

The dispute with GLO has enormous consequences: Harris County is counting on federal aid to help complete projects in its $2.5 billion flood bond program and Houston desperately wants to improve urban drainage so neighborhoods no longer flood before stormwater can flow into bayous.

The GLO in May announced the results of a $1 billion funding competition for the disaster mitigation aid, which completely shut out the city and county governments, despite the fact that Harris County sustained the most fatalities and property damage from the 2017 storm.

Houston Chronicle investigation found the scoring criteria GLO used discriminated against populous areas and the state disproportionately steered aid to inland counties with a lower risk of disasters than coastal ones most vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Land Commissioner George P. Bush claimed falsely that federal rules were to blame for the result.

After criticism from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans alike, the GLO said it would revise its plan for spending more than $1 billion in additional federal aid it has yet to distribute. Instead of holding a second scoring competition as originally planned, GLO intends to award $750 million directly to Harris County, which it can share with Houston and other cities at its discretion.

An additional $667 million would be divided amount regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must approve the revised plan.

In a letter of its own to GLO on Wednesday, Harris County walked a fine line between thanking the state for offering the $750 million and making a case for why it remains insufficient.

Given its own need to fund flood bond projects, the county is disinclined to share its allocation with cities within its boundaries. Instead, County Administrator Dave Berry said county leaders support Houston’s request for a $1 billion allocation.

“The majority of the amount the State of Texas (federal) allocation — by far — was due to Hurricane Harvey and the documented damage suffered in Harris County and the city of Houston,” Berry wrote. “Congress clearly intended for this money to go to communities most impacted and distressed by Harvey.”

See here for my previous update, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for color commentary. This is the same tired bullshit from the GLO, with more insults. We’re going to need the feds to step in and apply the hammer, and then we’re seriously going to need to vote a lot of people out of office. There’s no other way forward at this point.

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.

A little sandbagging from the SOS on the fraudit

Who’s running this show?

In the five days since the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it is auditing the 2020 general election in four counties, local officials indicated they were in the dark about what the reviews would entail.

Now, they’ve learned they cover some of the standard post-election procedures local officials are already required to undertake.

On Tuesday night, the state agency that oversees elections offered the first glimpse of what it has dubbed a “full forensic audit” of the election in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, but it appears the scope of the effort may be more limited than what the term may suggest. The secretary of state’s documentation explaining the parameters of the reviews notes the first phase includes partial manual counts of ballots and security assessments, which all counties are already required to undergo.

The second phase, which is slated for “spring 2022,” will be an examination of election records “to ensure election administration procedures were properly followed.” That includes reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties.

But the secretary of state also indicates it will review records that counties already provide to the office, including the “reasonable impediment declarations” filled out by voters who indicate they lack one of the photo IDs the state requires voters to present to cast a ballot.

[…]

Officials in Harris County on Tuesday morning indicated they remained unaware of what the audits would cover despite comments by Abbott that the reviews “actually began months ago.” Now, it appears the governor was, at least in part, referring to processes counties are separately required by law to complete.

For example, the partial manual counts of ballots listed under the first phase of the reviews must be conducted within 72 hours of polls closing after every single election.

The reviews also provoked criticism that invoked the politically driven election review in Arizona that has been mired by ineptitude and described by the Arizona secretary of state as an exercise plagued by “problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats.” The report of the Arizona review, which confirmed President Joe Biden won the state, was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit.

In releasing the details about the reviews, a spokesman for the secretary of state emphasized the office would not be “hiring or contracting with an outside firm to conduct these audits.”

See here and here for the background. I guess it’s good that we’re not throwing millions of dollars at a bunch of pro-Trump grifters who will come in and do a lot of damage, but the word for all this is still “pathetic”. If the purpose was to take these existing actions and package them as a true fraudit, so as to appease their god-king, it didn’t work.

Gov. Greg Abbott is failing to appease some inside his party — including former President Donald Trump — with the “forensic election audit” that the state announced Thursday.

Trump released a letter to Abbott on Thursday urging him to add audit legislation, which could allow a review of mail-in and in-person ballots across the state, to the agenda for the current special session agenda. Instead, the secretary of state’s office announced later that day that it was already starting to audit the 2020 election results in four of the state’s biggest counties.

In a new statement to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Trump said it is “a big mistake for Texas” not to pass the audit legislation, House Bill 16 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

“By allowing the Democrats to do what they do, it will make it much harder for the Governor and other Republicans to win election in 2022 and into the future,” Trump said. “Texas is a much redder state than anyone knows, but this is the way to make sure it turns blue.”

Trump assumes, with quite a bit of justification, that he can get Abbott to roll over and supplicate himself further. There’s only one reasonable response to this.

A resolution from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo denouncing the election audits for 2020 election results in four large Texas counties passed Tuesday night 3 to 2, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

Hidalgo has called the audit, which centers on Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, a “sham” and a political maneuver to fuel conspiracy theorists who keep pushing the false narrative that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

[…]

Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey was one of the two Republicans who voted against the resolution Tuesday night, arguing “transparency is not a bad thing.”

A few days prior to the resolution, Hidalgo warned continuing the conversation around election results “lends some credence” to conspiracy theories that fraud exists.

“These are the kinds of folks that stormed the capital. They are not going to be persuaded that their conspiracy theories are false,” Hidalgo said in a Sunday Twitter video. “It can’t be that the strategy of one party is to burn it all to the ground when their candidate doesn’t win. That’s how you tear down a country, that’s how you tear down a democracy.”

Lina Hidalgo is a strong and competent leader. Greg Abbott is not. And Tom Ramsey is as much a disgrace as Abbott is. Draw him out of his undeserved position, y’all.

Initial Senate and SBOE maps approved by committee

Still a lot of changes likely to come.

A panel of lawmakers on Tuesday advanced draft maps of the Texas Senate and State Board of Education, sending both to the full upper chamber for further debate.

The maps, both authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who leads the Senate Special Redistricting Committee, will likely see further changes before the Legislature sends them to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for the signature. The initial drafts of both maps have so far attempted to strengthen Republican majorities by protecting incumbents and creating more GOP-friendly districts.

Senate Bill 4, the draft of the Senate’s 31 district map, was tweaked by lawmakers before the chamber’s redistricting committee approved it along a 12-2 vote.

One of the more notable changes, offered in amendments by Huffman, involved Senate District 10, which is represented by state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson. In the latest draft, the district — which is currently contained in Tarrant County and voted for President Joe Biden during the 2020 general election — was redrawn to include parts of the more conservative Parker and Johnson counties as well as other GOP-leaning surrounding areas in the state. The Senate’s first draft would have included parts of Tarrant County along with Parker and Johnson counties.

After that first draft was released, Powell argued that the proposed map would be “a direct assault on the voting rights of minority citizens in Senate District 10 and, if adopted, it would be an act of intentional discrimination.” At the time, Powell said the latest census data showed that her district’s population was already “nearly ideal” — but on Tuesday, Huffman said that neighboring districts had to also be accounted for before emphasizing that her proposals had been “drafted blind to racial data.”

Another change before Tuesday’s vote involved Senate Districts 22 and 23, which are represented by state Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Royce West, D-Dallas, respectively. The amendment, authored by West but laid out by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would swap several precincts between the two districts, including some in Tarrant County from Senate District 22 to 23. Zaffirini said the move would keep both districts within the acceptable population deviation.

See here for the background on the Senate maps. You can see the initial map here and the committee substitute map that was approved here, with more data on the plan here. SD10, which as noted goes from having some of Tarrant plus all of Parker and Johnson to having some of Tarrant, some of Parker, all of Johnson and all of a few smaller counties west of there, is the main difference. As noted, the House still gets to have input – by tradition, each chamber gets first crack at its own map – so expect further changes.

In addition, there may be some complaints from unexpected places.

Montgomery County commissioners urged the Texas Legislature to reconsider the proposed redrawing of state congressional maps that would dilute the county’s conservative representation by adding a third senate district.

County Judge Mark Keough said he traveled to Austin last week to express the county’s “disapproval” of the redistricting plan.

[…]

Currently, Keough explained, Montgomery County has two senate districts. However, the proposed changes would add a third district that would divide Magnolia and extend Harris County districts into Montgomery County.

“We are deeply concerned about this as we move forward,” Keough said.

The story keeps talking about the Congressional map while these MoCo folks are whining about the Senate map; it’s annoying and confusing. The current Senate map has SDs 03 and 04 in Montgomery, while the new maps move SD03 out and move pieces of SDs 07 and 17 in, to bolster those incumbents from the ravages of a bluer Harris County. Their complaints had no effect on the committee, but there’s still time for them to make a case to the rest of the Lege.

Back to the Trib story:

The committee unanimously approved the draft of the State Board of Education map on Tuesday, without amendments. The board is a 15-member, majority Republican body that determines what millions of public school students in the state are taught in classrooms. Nine Republicans and six Democrats currently sit on the board.

The current version of that map did not make any changes to the racial breakdown of the board’s 15 districts — based on eligible voters, Hispanic residents make up a majority in three of those districts, 10 districts with white majorities and two have no majority.

See here for the background on the SBOE map, whose demographic breakdown makes no sense to me, but here we are. Maybe this time it will be part of the inevitable litigation.

More on the fraudit

My God, Greg Abbott is a wimp.

Donald Trump’s letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demanding he pursue an “audit” of the 2020 election set off a “mad dash” in the governor’s office as aides sought to figure out just how serious the former president was, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

In the letter, Trump called on Abbott to hold a “Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election” and pass HB 16, a bill recently filed in the Third Special Session of the Texas legislature, which would allow for an Arizona-style “audit” of the presidential election.

“Despite my big win in Texas, I hear Texans want an election audit!” Trump wrote in a public letter addressed to Abbott on Thursday. “Texas needs you to act now. Your Third Special Session is the perfect, and maybe last, opportunity to pass this audit bill. Time is running out.”

Just hours after Trump released the letter, a statement was put out by Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, who said the office had “already begun the process” of reviewing 2020 votes in the state’s two largest Democrat and two largest Republican counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Trump only won Collin County, and Biden won Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties in 2020.

During an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Abbott said that the audits “began months ago”— a statement that echoed the claim made by the office of the secretary of state.

“State audits conducted by the Texas Secretary of State’s office have already been underway for months,” Renae Eze, press secretary for the governor, said in a statement. “Under federal law, county election officials only have to keep these materials for 22 months, and it is imperative that all aspects of elections conducted in 2020 are examined before the counties clear out these materials in September 2022.”

But in reports from both the Texas Tribune and CNN, local officials in counties targeted by the “audit” said they had not learned of the review until Thursday’s statement from the secretary of state’s office.

And behind the scenes, the Texas governor’s office was caught off guard by Trump, whose letter made no mention of “audits” already underway. There had not been contact between Trump and Abbott ahead of the release, and Abbott’s office was uncertain if they could meet Trump’s demands to pass HB16 without complicating the legislative agenda. One Texas political aide familiar with how the process played out said, “The secretary of state‘s decision to call for audits in the four largest counties in Texas was predicated on Trump’s statement mentioning Gov. Abbott.”

“There was a mad dash to determine if Trump was actually being serious with his statement and it was decided this was the best route to take without blowing up the special session,” the aide said.

The scramble among Abbott’s team to placate the president illustrated the degree to which Trump and his election conspiracies continue to set the rules of engagement for virtually all other GOP elected officials.

See here for the background. I wish I had something thoughtful to say, but I don’t. This isn’t really a situation that calls for calm analysis. It requires calling a thing what it is, and that is to say that this is a disgrace and an embarrassment. Greg Abbott is a sniveling coward.

In the meantime, someone owes us some answers about this crap.

The top civil lawyer for Texas’s most populous county issued a records demand seeking information on the origins of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) so-called “forensic audit” plans, including any communications between the secretary of state’s office and surrogates for former President Donald Trump.

“Governor Abbott and the Secretary of State are telling the public that this ‘audit’ has been going on for months, but this is the first time the County’s heard anything about it,” Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee wrote in a statement. “They’re on the news and issuing press releases about this ‘audit’, talking to everyone about it but us.”

“The administration has told us nothing about the purpose of or legal basis for this audit, what they’re requesting, or what the process will be,” Menefee added. “It’s my job to advise the County and the Elections Administrator on how to respond. I can’t do that without this basic information that neither the Governor nor the SOS has shared.”

In his two-page letter, Menefee addresses his records demand to the office of Texas’s Secretary of State, which is currently vacant. Menefee addressed the letter to the general mailbox for that office’s general counsel, requesting 14 categories of information.

Two of those categories relate to the governor’s office: One seeks “[a]ll communications between the SOS office and the Office of the Texas Governor or the Office of the Lieutenant Governor related to a complaint, allegation of fraud or misconduct, request for investigation or review, or question received by the SOS office regarding the November 2020 General Election in Harris County.”

The other demands “[a]ll communications between the SOS office and the Office of the Texas Governor or the Office of the Lieutenant Governor related to the ‘forensic audit’ of the November 2020 General Election in Harris County announced by the SOS on September 23, 2021 (as the SOS office’s announcement explicitly states the department ‘has already begun the process,’ this request also seeks communications dated prior to September 23, 2021).”

You can see the full letter embedded in the story. I fully expect this request to be stonewalled, and for Ken Paxton to slime his way in to defend not turning anything over. But it’s vital that we get as much information about this travesty and the ways in which our government has conspired to try to placate Donald Trump. This is what we elected Christian Menefee for. I have faith he is up to the task.

UPDATE: Hilarious and pathetic at the same time:

Someone who was his own person would be able to articulate what was happening in an accurate way. Someone who is a sock puppet, well. You know.

First proposed Congressional map is out

It’s a thing.

Texas lawmakers on Monday released their first draft of a new congressional map for the next decade that includes two new districts in Austin and Houston — metropolitan areas with diverse populations tht fueled much of the state’s population growth over the past 10 years.

Republicans constructed this map with incumbent protection in mind — a strategy that focused on bolstering Republican seats that Democrats targeted over the last two election cycles rather than aggressively adding new seats that could flip from blue to red. However, the map does in fact strengthen Republican positioning overall, going from 22 to 25 districts that voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The number of districts that voted for Joe Biden would shrink by one, from 14 to 13.

Texas members of the House GOP delegation were closely involved in the drawing process and approved the map last week, according to two sources close to the Texas delegation.

While many incumbents appear safe in these maps, others were drawn into districts that overlap with one another — for example the proposed map pits Houston Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw against Democrat Rep. Sylvia Garcia. It also pits two Houston Democrats — Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — against each other.

The maps were proposed by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who leads the chamber’s redistricting committee.

[…]

Huffman’s first 38-district proposal would widen the gap between the parties, creating 25 districts that voted for Trump in 2020 and 13 that voted for Biden.

The racial makeup of the congressional maps is also expected to change as Texas added two new congressional seats based on last decade’s population growth, which was mostly driven by people of color. Based on eligible voters, the current map includes 22 districts with white majorities, eight with Hispanic majorities, one with a Black majority and five that have no majority. The newly proposed map includes 23 districts with white majorities, seven with Hispanic majorities, none with a Black majority and eight that have no majority.

Available data can be found here. Patrick Svitek has some numbers, which I’ll summarize briefly:

– Of the 14 districts carried by Biden in 2020, 12 were carried by him under this map. The exceptions are Republican-held CD24, which goes from Biden +5 to Trump +12, and Democratic-held CD15, which goes from Biden +2 to Trump +3. That may make CD15 the new CD23, which went from Trump +1 to Trump +7.

– Of the two new districts, CD37 in Travis County is deep, dark blue (Biden +53), while CD38 in Harris County is Trump +18. Let’s just say I don’t think it will remain that red over time.

– Regardless of what the story says, it seems clear to me that Reps. Crenshaw, Green, Jackson Lee, and Garcia would run in and win the same-numbered districts as they have now.

– Reps. Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher get much bluer districts. Maybe that makes them vulnerable to primary challenges, I don’t know. Rep. Henry Cuellar in CD28 gets a district that is less favorable for his 2020 primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros.

– Overall I think I agree with Michael Li:

This map uses the same strategy as the Senate and SBOE maps in that it shores up a Harris County incumbent (in this case Crenshaw) by extending his district into Montgomery County, and shores up some other incumbents (see in particular Reps. Williams in CD25 and Carter in CD31) by making their districts more rural. As the meme says, it’s a bold strategy, we’ll see how it works for them.

The Chron focuses on the Harris County piece of this, with the following observation:

A spokesman for Wesley Hunt, a Republican who ran against Fletcher in 2020, said the former Army helicopter pilot would run for the new District 38 seat if lawmakers were to adopt the initial map proposal.

Hunt had previously announced he was running in 2022 but had yet to settle on a district while awaiting the proposed map.

That sound you hear is me rolling my eyes, and yes I am rolling them hard enough for it to be audible. The Texas Signal has more.

So we have a fraudit

What a load of crap.

The Texas secretary of state’s office announced late Thursday that it has begun a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in four Texas counties: Collin, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant. But the statement from that agency did not explain what prompted the move.

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas in 2020.

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No elections officials in the four counties immediately responded for comment.

The announcement came hours after Republican former President Donald Trump requested Gov. Greg Abbott add an election audit bill to this year’s third special session. While Trump lost his reelection bid, he did win in Texas.

It was unclear if his request was related to the announcement from the secretary of state’s office. But Taylor’s press release said the agency has “already begun the process in Texas’ two largest Democrat counties and two largest Republican counties—Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin.” While Tarrant has long been a Republican stronghold, Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump there, according to the county’s election results.

Former Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs, who oversaw the 2020 elections, resigned when the Texas Senate refused to confirm her appointment. A deputy for Hughs called the 2020 election “smooth and secure” earlier this year.

Who knows what any of this even means, or what safeguards are in place to ensure integrity and transparency. I’d say that this was a rogue official going off on their own, but I think we all know that when Donald Trump tells a weak leader like Greg Abbott to do something, Abbott will comply.

In the meantime, county officials have responded, for the most part appropriately.

Harris County leaders on Friday blasted the Texas secretary of state’s decision to conduct a comprehensive “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in four counties, including Harris, as a political ploy to appease conspiracy theorists and former President Donald Trump.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo accused Gov. Greg Abbott of trying to curry favor with the former president, who on Thursday called for an audit of the Texas results, despite comfortably carrying the state in his unsuccessful bid for re-election. She likened the effort to audits in Arizona and Pennsylvania, which have failed to find major errors in vote tallying.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in Harris County’s 2020 election, where a record 1.7 million voters participated.

“This does not deserve to be treated as a serious matter or serious audit,” Hidalgo said. “It is an irresponsible political trick. It is a sham. It is a cavalier and dangerous assault on voters and democracy.”

Precisely who ordered the audits of election results for Harris, Dallas, Collin and Tarrant counties, as well as what they would entail, remains a mystery. The Secretary of State’s Office distributed a news release Thursday evening, though the secretary of state post has been vacant since May and spokesman Sam Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.

I’d forgotten that we don’t actually have a Secretary of State right now. I guess that “audit” must have gotten started on its own. Probably a computer glitch somewhere.

County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was surprised by the secretary of state’s announcement, noting she had spoken with that office’s staff hours earlier about an unrelated matter. Longoria said no state agency or department has provided her with any information about how the audit of Harris County’s election results will be conducted.

After the 2020 contest, Longoria said her office conducted a partial manual review of mail ballots and electronic records from voting machines. Eleven months later, Longoria said she has turned her attention toward preparing for future elections.

“I’m now being blindsided about an audit that we have no information on and no direction on,” Longoria said. “My job is protect the voters… not just open up the books to whoever has a new conspiracy of the day, and let you run rampant with confidential election records.”

County Attorney Christian Menefee said the Texas audit “is clearly being done in bad faith” since it was announced just hours after Trump requested it. All three Harris County officials said they will comply with the law and any potential rulings from judges, but would otherwise not take the audit effort seriously.

“The goal of this is to intimidate our election workers and the folks who volunteer in elections, to undermine our confidence in democracy and to pander to … a gentleman who lost an election 11 months ago,” Menefee said. “We’re going to continue to push back where appropriate.”

Commissioners Court is divided over party lines on the audit. The two Democratic commissioners, Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, said they agreed with Hidalgo’s criticism. Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said despite county elections officials’ assurances that the 2020 contest was conducted securely, he does not know if that is accurate.

“I think there’s enough questions there,” Ramsey said. “Obviously, you need to go back and look at the numbers. Just because there hasn’t been anything (found) at this point, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s why you do an audit.”

OK, I’m back on the “redistrict that guy into oblivion” train. Harris County deserves way better than that.

Not just our county officials, either.

“The conspiracy theorists who want to come up with all these ways or reasons why this election wasn’t right — they might very well find something else [to doubt],” said Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. “It’s time to move on.”

Whitley and officials in Harris also said they have not been told what the audits entail or what prompted them. They said they learned about them from a late Thursday press release sent by a spokesperson in the secretary of state’s office. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said an audit can have many forms, but Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said her office hadn’t heard any details of what the state’s plans are as of noon Friday. Longoria said the county has already confirmed the results of the elections several times.

“If people want to hear it again and again and again and again, that nothing’s wrong — great,” she said. “But at what point are you going to be willing to hear the truth, that nothing was wrong with the November 2020 elections?”

[…]

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, echoed Hidalgo’s remarks.

“This is a weak Governor openly and shamelessly taking his orders from a disgraced former President. Governor Abbott is wasting taxpayer funds to trample on Texans’ freedom to vote, all in order to appease his puppeteer,” Jenkins said over text message.

Jenkins said in an interview that Dallas County will not resist the audit for now — but if the state asks for more than what the county thinks is suitable under the election code, he could see challenging it in court.

Collin County had no comment at the time. Courage, y’all.

I’m sorry, I don’t have anything coherent to say about this. It’s bullshit all the way down, and I have a hard time taking its premise seriously enough to engage with it. But I will say this much, these guys have amazing timing.

On Friday afternoon, the leaders of the unorthodox 2020 election audit in Arizona announced the results of their monthslong, Trump ally–sponsored hunt for voter fraud in Maricopa County, which Joe Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes out of millions cast.

The timing of the release hints at the significance of the audit’s findings. For months, Donald Trump has been billing the investigation as the thing that will provide definitive proof of his victory in Arizona. If the audit was going to show that the election was stolen from Trump by Democratic goons in cactus-covered antifa ski masks, why release it late on a Friday afternoon at a time usually reserved for dumps of information people want to go uncovered?

leaked report on Thursday evening offered an answer. The ballyhooed and controversially conducted hand count of nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots still showed Biden defeating Trump, and though the margin changed by 360 votes it was actually Biden whose margin of victory grew from 45,109 to 45,469.

“This is yet the latest in a string of defeats for Donald Trump saying the election was rigged and fraudulent,” longtime Republican election attorney Benjamin Ginsberg said in a press call with the elections group States United. “[This] was their best attempt. This was an audit in which they absolutely cooked the procedures, they took funding from sources that should delegitimatize the findings automatically. This was Donald Trump’s best chance to prove his allegations of elections being rigged and fraudulent and they failed.”

It turns out that not even a partisan-funded and -conducted recount using procedures out of a Pee Wee Herman film could change the outcome. “The Cyber Ninjas couldn’t do the thing they were on the hook to do,” said cochairman of States United Norm Eisen.

I look forward to a similar result in Texas. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

Judge Hidalgo has an opponent

For the general election.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Humble ISD School Board president Martina Lemond Dixon announced Wednesday she is running for Harris County Judge as a Republican candidate in the 2022 election.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was one of the youngest candidates and first Latina ever elected to office after she beat out Republican incumbent Ed Emmett in 2018 to become judge of the third-largest county in the country.

Dixon took aim at Hidalgo in her announcement, claiming she is “more interested in playing politics and advancing her out of touch progressive agenda than managing the largest county in TX.”

“Whether it is crime, flood recovery, roads or taxes, we can get it done and put our county back on track if we put politics aside and work together,” Dixon said.

Whatever. I am at this point officially not worried about Judge Hidalgo. I will look forward to seeing the January finance reports.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

First new SBOE map proposed

That’s two down, two to go.

The Texas Senate on Monday released its first draft of a new map for the State Board of Education, which attempts to reinforce the GOP majority within the 15-member, Republican-dominated entity that determines what millions of public school students in the state are taught in classrooms.

The map is likely to change as it makes its way through the legislative process, which began formally Monday as the Legislature kicked off its third special session of the year. Lawmakers have been tasked with redrawing district maps for the board, the state House and Senate as well as the state’s congressional seats. They will craft those maps using the latest census data, which showed that people of color fueled 95% of the state’s population growth over the past decade. The proposals will have to be approved by both chambers and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Nine Republicans and six Democrats currently make up the State Board of Education. During the 2020 general election, seven of those 15 districts went to President Joe Biden — though, under the Senate’s proposed map, only five would favor Biden and one would be considered a toss-up seat.

Districts 6, held by Republican Will Hickan of Houston, and District 12, held by Republican Pam Little of Fairview, both went to Biden narrowly in the 2020 election. Those two districts would be retooled under the Senate’s draft to include more Donald Trump voters and give Republicans a more comfortable majority. District 2, which favored the Republican former president in 2020 by a few percentage points, would be evenly split among Biden and Trump voters. That district is currently held by Ruben Cortez Jr., a Brownsville Democrat.

The special session, which can last up to 30 days, is expected to focus largely on redrawing the state’s political maps, along with a host of other issues set by Abbott. Since the GOP holds majorities in both chambers, the redistricting process will be in the hands of Republicans, who will work to best position their party for the next decade.

You can see an image of the proposed map in the story, and in this Twitter thread, or you can get all fancy and look in the District Viewer, which lets you zoom as far in as a Google map would. You can see the current map here for comparison, and my 2020 precinct analysis is here. This person projects that the split would remain 9-6 based on 2020 data, though SBOE2 is close, with the Dems having about a four or five point advantage. SBOE5, the district we picked up in 2020, becomes more solid blue, while districts 6, 10, and 12 become redder.

The strategy, based on the shrinking rural areas plus the booming – and blueing – suburbs, is combining rural districts with pieces of suburban, and in some cases urban, counties. Look at SBOEs 9 and 14, for example, both of which now include pieces of Dallas County, with SBOE14 picking up much of Denton as well. Dallas County wins the “prize” of having the most districts in it with five – Harris only has three. On the other end is SBOE6, which is following the SD07 plan of carving out a piece of Montgomery County to fend off the blue tide in Harris. SBOE8 cedes most of Montgomery to SBOE6 and picks up a piece of Fort Bend in return. SBOE12 went from being all of Collin County and about a fifth of Dallas and nothing else to being all of Collin, a much smaller piece of Dallas, and a bunch of mostly Red River counties that had previously been in SBOE 9 and 15. I have think that SBOE9 incumbent Keven Ellis, who hails from Lufkin, is not too pleased to see so much of his district now in the Metroplex.

Anyway, this is the first map. The House will surely have its own maps on offer, and there will be revisions. I don’t see any other files on the Texas Redistricting site right now, but I’m sure they will appear soon enough. In the meantime, at least at first glance, this is more of a status quo map than anything else, in that the most likely scenario is the same 9-6 mix we have now. But SBOE2 could fall in a bad year or if the 2020 trends continue, and SBOE3 is more Republican at 43% than any of the currently red districts are Democratic (they all top out at 40 or 41), so the short-term potential for flips favors the GOP. We’ll see what happens from here.

The electoral dress code lawsuit

Still interesting.

A U.S. magistrate judge this week recommended striking down parts of Texas law that prohibit wearing political apparel within 100 feet of a polling place as unconstitutionally vague — but upholding a narrower provision that specifies that clothing bearing messages related to what’s on the ballot can be banned.

The issue first arose in 2018 when Harris County resident Jillian Ostrewich wore a Houston firefighters T-shirt to a polling place and election workers told her to turn it inside out because it related to Prop B, a pay parity measure for firefighters on that ballot that year. Claiming she was unconstitutionally censored and her right to free speech infringed upon, she sued Harris County and state officials.

The case puts to the test a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June of that year in which the justices struck down a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue-oriented” apparel at the polls for being overbroad. The Texas suit was brought by Pacific Legal Foundation, the same California-based libertarian public interest law firm that won the Minnesota case.

[…]

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison in his report on Tuesday said the election judge had a constitutional basis for rejecting Ostrewich’s shirt because it had a clear relationship to the ballot measure, even if it did not explicitly say to vote for that measure. Under that law, Edison said, Ostrewich had not been harmed and therefore was not entitled to damages.

Other parts of the law, however, which define “electioneering” as advocating “for or against any candidate, measure, or political party” through “posting, use, or distribution of political signs or literature” leaves room for misunderstanding, he said. Ostrewich would have no way of knowing whether wearing that same shirt in a future election, even if the measure weren’t on the ballot then, could also be considered illegal electioneering.

Those parts of the law “do not give Texas voters notice of what is expected of them in the polling place, and they do not provide election judges with objective, workable standards to rein in their discretion,” Edison wrote. “This is impermissible under the First Amendment and these statutory provisions should be struck down as unconstitutional.”

See here for the background. Seems reasonable to me to say that you can be barred from the restricted area for wearing a shirt that directly addresses the current election, but barring a shirt that’s not about that election may be too broad. The plaintiffs are claiming a victory, even though their main actor was denied any relief; I think the defendants can be reasonably satisfied with this as well. This was a recommendation and not a ruling – the parties have two weeks to hammer out an agreement of some kind, which will then need to be approved by the judge. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that was a thing, but here we are. The lawyers out there, what do you think about this?

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

It could have been worse

Just something to ponder, from Space City Weather.

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Not the first time this year that we averted a disaster by dumb luck. We’re four years out from Harvey, 13 years out from Ike, and we’ve had plenty of non-hurricane catastrophic floods in between, so it’s not like we’ve been living a charmed life here in Houston. Lots of people here have been hit very hard, and there’s a whole lot of talk about the trauma and stress that so many folks have experienced and still experience. This is life under climate change. There are things we can do to keep it from getting worse, and there are things we can do to make it better for those who have had the hardest time. But we can’t wish it away or ignore it, and we absolutely can’t deny it. It’s up to all of us.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

First Court denies en banc hearing for Paxton trial move

We’re at a point in the Ken Paxton criminal case where it’s hard to adequately summarize the most recent development in a headline-sized bite.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s securities fraud case can be tried in his home county in North Texas, an appeals court affirmed Thursday when it denied the prosecution’s plea to reconsider the decision.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston denied a motion by prosecutors to hold a hearing of the full nine-justice court to review the decision made by a three-justice panel of the court in May to move the case from Harris County back to Collin County, where Paxton lives. The order could have avoided further delays in the six-year-old criminal case against the sitting attorney general and returned the case to what is seen as a friendlier venue to the two-term Republican incumbent. But on Thursday, the prosecution said it would continue its appeals.

“Because we agree with the dissenting justices that there are critical errors in the majority’s decision, we will seek further review of it in the Court of Criminal Appeals,” special prosecutor Brian Wice said in a statement.

Justices Gordon Goodman and Amparo Guerra dissented to the court’s majority opinion and Justice April Farris did not participate. Goodman, who was part of the three-justice panel that sent the case back to Collin, had dissented in part to the original decision.

[…]

In May, the panel of three Democratic justices allowed the case to return to Collin County on a vote of 2-1, ruling that the presiding judge who moved the case out of Collin County in March 2017 had no longer been assigned to the judicial region handling Paxton’s case. The ruling was a major victory for Paxton, who had asked the courts to be tried in his home county, a staunchly Republican area of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, are well-known political figures.

But prosecutors had accused Paxton’s legal team of “sandbagging” the courts, by withholding information about the judge’s expired assignment so they could later raise the issue in an attempt to move the case back to Collin County. Wice argued that Paxton’s legal team had waited until the presiding judge, Gallagher, of Tarrant County, had moved the case out of Collin County to bring up his expired term with the appeals court. Wice asked the full appeals court to reconsider the panel’s decision and determine whether Paxton’s legal team knew of Gallagher’s expired term earlier in the case.

The court’s majority denied that request.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I had previously said that the First Court had granted the request for an en banc hearing, but all they had done at the time was ask for a response from Team Paxton to that request. I’ve always said I was not a lawyer, now you know why. Now we wait once again for the CCA process to play out.

Another catastrophe averted, for us

Sooner or later our luck is going to run out.

If Hurricane Ida had veered west and hit Galveston, its 15-foot storm surge could have devastated the city and plowed up the Houston Ship Channel, smashing into residential communities and industrial facilities; its 150 mph winds could have left much of the Houston area without power for weeks, experts said.

The region dodged yet another bullet last Sunday when Ida made landfall in Louisiana, inflicting catastrophic damage on its residents, property and oil-driven economy.

But Houston’s streak of relatively good luck since Hurricane Harvey four years ago is unlikely to last as climate change is expected to bring about more destructive hurricanes and sea level rise. A Category 4 hurricane such as Ida — which brought a triple threat of wind, storm surge and torrential rainfall — would have wreaked havoc on the Bayou City.

Unlike New Orleans, which strengthened its levee system after Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Houston hasn’t completed any substantial projects to protect the region against surge from a major hurricane such as Ida. The stakes are high: The Houston area is home to 7.1 million residents, one of the busiest shipping ports in the country and the nation’s largest concentration of critical oil and gas facilities.

“We are sitting ducks right now for a storm,” said Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University professor who began advocating for an “Ike Dike” coastal barrier system years ago that has yet to get congressional approval.

If Ida had hit Galveston instead of Port Fouchon, La., the hurricane could have caused devastating damage across the Houston region, meteorologists said.

Ida’s 15-foot storm surge would have been smaller than Hurricane Ike’s 22-foot storm surge, the worst of which hit Bolivar Peninsula and parts of Chambers County in 2008. The Port of Houston’s facilities, which are built 20 feet above sea level, likely would have survived.

[…]

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said hurricane mitigation efforts should go beyond the barrier project. While the Ike Dike could help stop an Ida-like storm surge, the barrier system isn’t designed to withstand winds from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane or prevent major flooding inland from rain. Harris County has undertaken a number of projects since Hurricane Harvey to increase storage capacity for and conveyance of rainfall; a separate Corps project looking at addressing rainfall is still in the planning phase.

Just as power plants should be ordered to weatherize their equipment for winter freezes, Houston leaders should be urging the oil and gas industry to shore up thousands of chemical storage tanks along the Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to spills in the event of storm surge and extreme winds. And more homes along the Ship Channel should be bought out or elevated, Stokes said.

“Even if you think the coastal barrier is a great solution, it shouldn’t be the end solution,” Stokes said. “Even if you had all the money in hand, it will take decades to build. We can be doing more in the short term that could make a big difference.”

This story is an advertisement for building the Ike Dike, but as it and this other story make clear, there has to be more. The Ike Dike is necessary but not sufficient. We have done some things in the Houston area, with the 2018 referendum helping out even as it has had its problems, but as always there is more to do.

I tend to look at problems like this through a cybersecurity lens. Anyone in that business will tell you that you cannot fully eliminate your risk – indeed, in the context of a large business network, it’s guaranteed that you will experience breaches and infections – but there are many things you can do to mitigate them. No one thing covers all scenarios, but the various solutions overlap and complement each other, with the idea being that if one thing doesn’t work then something else will, and if all else fails you can detect and respond to the situation quickly. It’s called “defense in depth”, and it’s sturdier and more resilient than any single solution, because if you just rely on one thing to keep you safe and that one thing fails in some way, you’re hosed. We need the Ike Dike and we’ve needed it for a long time, but even as we finally move towards getting it, we will continue to need more than that. The more we can do right now to bolster and complement the future Ike Dike, the better off we will be.

Three more lawsuits filed against the voter suppression law

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the other lawsuits, here are the basics:

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

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

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

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

Read the complaint here.

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

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

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

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

The lawsuit challenges multiple provisions in SB 1, including:

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

Read the lawsuit challenging S.B. 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

Plaintiff in Constable Precinct 1 lawsuit responds

She’s not having it with the dismissal of Constable Alan Rosen as a defendant from the lawsuit.

Constable Alan Rosen

The booze-fueled undercover hotel operations were bad. Felecia McKinney’s worst moment at the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, however, came two years ago, during an undercover sting at a Massage Heights near the Texas Medical Center.

Another Precinct 1 employee had been assaulted at the business. Her bosses wanted her to pose as a customer, wait to see if he acted again, and then give a signal to bust him and take him down.

When she emerged from the spa, a superior told her to drive herself to the hospital to get a sexual assault examination while Constable Alan Rosen held a celebratory news conference in the business’ parking lot, she said at a press conference Friday.

[…]

After the spa sting, McKinney and Erica Davis — the Precinct 1 employee whose assault led to the investigation of Massage Heights — sued the establishment, saying the budget spa chain, its employee, owner and franchisor were negligent in training and supervision. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case but McKinney’s complaint is still pending. Criminal charges against Wenjin Zhu, the massage therapist accused of sexually assaulting Davis and McKinney on the massage table two days apart, are also still pending. Zhu is detained in the county jail.

Though her lawyers have described her experience in court filings, McKinney had never addressed the public about her sexual assault in August 2019 until her brief remarks to reporters at her attorney’s office Friday morning.

“He knows what happened to me,” McKinney said of Rosen. “He intended it. He ordered it. And to hear him claim victory — and that he wouldn’t be held personally accountable for something he’s admitted to doing makes me feel attacked, unheard, and very alone.”

What angered her the most, she said, was reading comments from Rosen’s defenders that the constable should never have been included in the lawsuit in the first place.

“This case was never about money for me. It was about exposing the truth and holding people accountable,” she said, her voice catching. “When I read his comments and his attorney’s comments, I felt really victimized in ways I never expected. …When I saw the claim that he never should have been in the lawsuit, after ordering an operation that I go in to be sexually assaulted, I broke down.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know if the decision to remove Rosen as a defendant was a good one or not – I presume it can be appealed, but regardless of that the lawsuit itself if still ongoing. The allegations still refer to things that happened under Constable Rosen’s watch. I’m still far from convinced that any of the undercover actions were a good use of law enforcement resources, whether or not the deputies in question were put in needless danger. I don’t know what will come of this case, but we need to hear what Ms. McKinney and her fellow plaintiffs have to say.

New felony court coming

Your 2022 ballot is about to get longer.

A new Harris County felony court will open Sept. 1 after decades of population growth and no new criminal district judges.

The addition comes as judges, prosecutors, administrators and defense attorneys battle a massive backlog in the criminal courts, with almost 98,000 docketed cases near the end of July. Almost 54,000 of those cases were felonies, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The 22 existing felony judges are each juggling an average of 2,392 cases on their dockets, county data shows.

Gov. Greg Abbott on June 18 signed the existence of the 482nd district court into law. He has not yet selected a judge, and the 11th Administrative Judicial Region of Texas will make a jurist available until an official appointment takes place, said Harris County district court administrator Clay Bowman.

All of the current felony judges are elected Democrats, meaning Abbott could appoint a lone Republican to the bench.

“Will appoint a Republican”, you mean. That person will very likely be voted out next November. There are already going to be a lot of contested Democratic primaries for the judicial positions. This one will surely draw a crowd as well, it just won’t be against a Democratic incumbent.

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rough start to the school year

For some districts more than others.

Angleton and Livingston ISDs announced this week they temporarily were shutting down their schools, the first Houston-area districts to halt all in-person learning amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but possibly not the last.

With reported cases increasing rapidly since schools in the Houston region reopened last month, some districts are discussing contingency plans for closing campuses and, in some cases, shifting to online learning.

Already a handful of districts temporarily have shuttered individual classrooms or entire schools, prompted by the number of student infections, the number of kids having to quarantine or staff shortages caused by illness or quarantines.

With little guidance from the Texas Education Agency on metrics and thresholds that should trigger closures, school districts are making those calls on their own or relying on local health authorities. Among the factors being considered are rates of infection, teacher staffing — including the availability of substitutes — and student absences.

According to TEA, many districts have built time into their calendars in “anticipation that a temporary shutdown due to COVID” may be necessary.

“The agency has been coordinating with (districts) experiencing the need to close to ensure they have the information necessary to plan, adjust, and prepare to provide the required minimum of 75,600 operational minutes,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

[…]

Elsewhere in the state, Connally ISD in central Texas closed its five campuses near Waco for the week after two teachers died of COVID, as have a handful of east Texas districts and others in rural areas of the state.

Area districts that are mandating the use of face masks by students and staff, including Houston, Spring and Texas City ISDs, said they are not in talks about shutting down schools and are focusing on keeping in-person learning safe.

“We do not anticipate school closures,” reads Houston ISD’s COVID protocols. “However, should conditions change and an HISD school or building need to close, the determination will be made on a case-by-case basis by the superintendent in consultation with HISD Health and Medical Services and the Houston Health Department.”

Well, HISD still has a mask mandate, and I figure that has to be helping. I don’t want to get obnoxious about it since the Delta variant is terrible and pride goeth before a fall, but I’ll put better odds on HISD than on a district that isn’t taking the minimal steps to protect its students and teachers and staffers. According to the Trib, “At least 45 small school districts across Texas have been forced to temporarily stop offering in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the new school year”. I’m willing to bet none of them had a mask mandate; the story didn’t specify but it did say at the end that at least one of these small districts is thinking about it in defiance of Abbott. The total number of student COVID cases that have been reported is up 90% over the previous week, which needless to say is a trend that needs to stop quickly or else. I don’t know how long we can go on like this, but I do know that whatever happens it’s on Greg Abbott. Keep all of these folks in your thoughts.