Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Secretary of State

County Clerk can send his vote by mail applications

Good.

Chris Hollins

A judge on Friday rejected Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to halt Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill denied Paxton’s request for a temporary injunction, stating that nothing in the Texas Election Code bars Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins from carrying out the plan.

Sandill was unpersuaded by the state’s argument that sending applications to voters, accompanied by eligibility rules, would lead residents to apply for mail ballots for which they do not qualify. Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram warned that this would lead to voter fraud and potential felony prosecutions of residents.

“This Court firmly believes that Harris County voters are capable of reviewing and understanding the document Mr. Hollins proposes to send and exercising their voting rights in compliance with Texas law,” Sandill wrote in his opinion.

The case now will be decided on its merits, with Hollins free to send the applications in the meantime. His spokeswoman said the mailings to voters under 65 would be sent starting Saturday.

See here for the background. The ACLU sent out a link to a copy of the ruling, which is short and straightforward. There were two claims made by the plaintiffs, that County Clerk Chris Hollins was acting ultra vires, which is the fancy Latin term for “outside his authority”, and that sending the applications could cause fraud by luring unsuspecting voters who did not qualify for the mail ballot to commit fraud. On that second point, the embedded illustration of the ballot application makes exceedingly short work of that concern:

As for the ultra vires claim, let me quote from the ruling:

The Legislature has spoken at length on the mechanisms for mail-in voting. There are no fewer than 42 Election Code provisions on the subject. See TEX. ELEC. CODE, Chs. 84, 86 & 87. In those provisions, the Legislature has made clear that in order to vote by mail a voter first “must make an application for an early voting ballot.” Id. at § 84.001. But, as to how the voter is to obtain the application, the Election Code is silent.

There is no code provision that limits an early voting clerk’s ability to send a vote by mail application to a registered voter. Section 84.012 contains no prohibitive language whatsoever, but rather, requires the early voting clerk to take affirmative action in the instance a voter does request an application to vote by mail. That the clerk must provide an application upon request does not preclude the clerk from providing an application absent a request.

Indeed, there are a number of code provisions that demonstrate the Legislature’s desire for mail voting applications to be freely disseminated. For example, section 1.010 mandates that a county clerk with whom mail voting applications are to be filed (e.g., Mr. Hollins) make the applications “readily and timely available.” Id. at § 1.010. In addition, section 84.013 requires that vote by mail applications be provided “in reasonable quantities without charge to individuals or organizations requesting them for distribution to voters.” Id. at § 84.013. Further, the Court notes that, consistent with these provisions, both the Secretary of State and the County make the application for a mail ballot readily available on their respective websites.

Against the backdrop of this statutory scheme, the Court cannot accept the State’s interpretation of section 84.012. To do so would read into the statute words that do not exist and would lead to the absurd result that any and every private individual or organization may without limit send unsolicited mail voting applications to registered voters, but that the early voting clerk, who possesses broad statutory authority to manage and conduct the election, cannot. Mr. Hollins’s contemplated conduct does not exceed his statutory authority as early voting clerk and therefore is not ultra vires.

I made pretty much the same argument, so yeah. This was a weak case, and I’d hate to have been the attorney that was forced to make it. They had to know it was a loser, but I guess once you’re all in for stamping out voter convenience, you’ve got to take it to the finish line. The state has filed its appeal, so one presumes they are hoping to get lucky with the Supreme Court.

Which brings me to the larger point that needs to be made here. As with the age discrimination claim, there is a clear and straightforward legislative solution to this. Unlike that age discrimination case, the legislative solutions go both ways. What I mean by that is that with this ruling in the books, the Republicans have a planet-sized incentive to close this gaping loophole (as they see it) in the law. If the Republicans maintain control of the House, I guarantee you – guarantee you – they will pass a bill that severely restricts the ability to send out vote by mail applications to anyone who does not expressly ask for them. One could argue, given recent legislative history, the only reason such restrictions don’t already exist is that they hadn’t thought of it before. (And to be fair, up until very recently vote by mail was very much the province of Republican candidates and campaigns. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there’s a reason why voting by mail was excluded from the voter ID law, and that reason is because at the time, voting by mail was seen as a boon to Republicans. Now that any form of convenience for voters is seen as pro-Democratic, it’s open season.)

So, either we flip the House to Democratic control, and prevent a bill like that from passing, or Republicans maintain control and voting by mail becomes that much more obstacle-laden. Maybe they will find a way to add mail ballots to the voter ID law, perhaps by requiring all mail ballots to include a notarized signature. The Republicans have made it clear what they want to do. We have one chance to stop them. The Trib has more.

Fifth Circuit rejects age discrimination claims in vote by mail lawsuit

This is pretty much the end of the line, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Texas can keep its strict eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Siding with the state’s Republican leadership, the appellate judges rejected the Texas Democratic Party’s effort to expand eligibility for voting by mail to all registered voters based on their argument that the state’s age restrictions for such voting violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting rules that discriminate based on age.

The panel of appellate judges ultimately found that “conferring a privilege” to some voters — in this case the option of voting by mail to voters 65 and older — does not alone violate the 26th Amendment.

“In sum, the plaintiffs based their Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim on the argument that differential treatment in allowing voters aged 65 and older to vote by mail without excuse constitutes, at least during the pandemic, a denial or abridgment of a younger citizen’s right to vote on account of age,” the panel wrote. “This claim fails because adding a benefit to another class of voters does not deny or abridge the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote.”

The federal panel vacated a lower court’s sweeping ruling that found Texas voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail were in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. On Thursday, state Democrats indicated they would push forward with their challenge at the lower court, where the appellate court sent the case for further consideration of the party’s remaining arguments against the state’s restrictions.

[…]

“Rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments, we hold that an election law abridges a person’s right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced,” the judges wrote.

The panel was made up by Judges Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; Carl Stewart, who was appointed by Bill Clinton; and Leslie H. Southwick, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

Dissenting in part to the majority opinion, Stewart wrote that the state’s eligibility rules fail to “treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting.”

“This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic,” Stewart wrote. “Though all individuals can seemingly vote in person, those without the opportunity to vote by mail have less opportunity to participate than others.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Michael Hurta has a good brief analysis of it. As to what happens next, Rick Hasen thinks the original trial judge will find for the plaintiffs again, which will trigger another appeal. As such, this isn’t really the end of the line as I’ve suggested above, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be a ruling that favors the plaintiffs any time before the November election. Whatever ultimately happens with this will not happen until at least 2021. I don’t care for this ruling, and this was about as friendly a three-judge panel as we were gonna get. It’s hard for me to see how the outcome changes.

Which means, as I have been saying over and over again, the ultimate fix rests within the legislative process. Just add this to the ever-increasing list of things that a Democratic Legislature, in conjunction with a Democratic Governor, will need to fix. The Republicans have made their position crystal clear. There’s no bipartisan solution. The only way out is through, and that means electing a better government. The Chron has more.

State appeals court rules (mostly) against Libertarians in filing fee lawsuit

Here’s the story. It gets into the legal weeds, and I’m going to try my best to clear them out.

A state appellate court this week upheld a 2019 law that extended a requirement that candidates pay a filing fee or submit a petition to appear on the ballot to minor party candidates.

A district court found the fee was unconstitutional, siding with nine Libertarians who had sued, saying it was unreasonably burdensome. But the three-justice panel of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Tuesday sided with the state, saying the plaintiffs did not make a strong enough constitutional argument to waive the secretary of state’s sovereign immunity to civil suits.

The law at issue, House Bill 2504, lowered the amount of votes a party needed to get in a statewide election to retain a place on the ballot. But it also added a requirement that candidates nominated at a convention — such as those in the Libertarian and Green parties — rather than through a primary had to pay a filing fee or gather petition signatures in order to be on the ballot. Previously, only major party candidates had to pay those fees.

The law “imposes reasonable and nondiscriminatory restrictions that are sufficiently justified by the State’s interest in requiring candidates to show a modicum of support to guarantee their names on the general-election ballot,” Justice Meagan Hassan wrote. “These are the same restrictions imposed on major-party candidates with respect to their participation in the primary election.”

The ruling Tuesday will not affect Libertarian candidates on the ballot this year.

There are a couple of active lawsuits challenging the new filing fee/petition signature requirements from HB2504, this one in state court which I had not blogged about before and a federal lawsuit that as far as I know has not had a hearing yet. I gave the state lawsuit a mention at the end of this post, mostly to note that the requirement to pay the filing fees was in effect in Texas despite the original order from Judge Kristin Hawkins, as it had been superseded by the state’s appeal. This lawsuit was partly about that now-not-in-effect injunction that enjoined the collection of the filing fees, partly about whether Secretary of State Ruth Hughs could be properly sued over this, and partly about the constitutionality of the fees in the first place. Let’s go to the opinion to try to unpack things.

The trial court granted Appellees’ request for a temporary injunction and enjoined Hughs from enforcing section 141.041 and the related advisory. The trial court also denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction. Hughs filed separate appeals with respect to these decisions, which were consolidated into a single appeal.

For the reasons below, we affirm the trial court’s temporary injunction in part as modified and reverse and remand in part. We conclude the trial court erred insofar as it (1) denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041 and (2) improperly enjoined the enforcement thereof. We further conclude the trial court (1) properly denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the advisory and (2) did not abuse its discretion by temporarily enjoining the advisory’s enforcement in part.

First, the appeals court denied SOS Ruth Hughs’ claim that she was immune to being sued for this. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and then-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were also sued in their official capacities in the original petition, but they were not party to the appeal.

Second, the appeals court overturned Judge Hawkins’ ruling that the filing fees were unconstitutional. This was covered in the story and is the bulk of the opinion, which gets into some exceedingly mind-numbing detail. I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated layman for the purposes of reading and understanding legal writings, but boy howdy did my eyes glaze over in this part of the document. The bottom line is that the court concluded that the fees did not constitute an excessively burdensome requirement.

The matter of the injunction is where it gets a little tricky. Let’s skip ahead to the end, where that piece of business is addressed.

The trial court’s temporary injunction enjoins Hughs from enforcing section 141.041’s requirements at the time of the Advisory’s December 9, 2019 deadline or “at any other time.” We therefore construe the injunction to enjoin the enforcement of both section 141.041 and the Advisory.

We concluded above that sovereign immunity precludes Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041. Therefore, to the extent the injunction enjoins enforcement of section 141.041, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter the injunction.

Turning to the enforcement of the Advisory, […]

I’ll spare you a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to say that this means that while the law is constitutional and thus will not be enjoined, the enforcement of the law via the Secretary of State’s advisory that specified the minor parties’ need to collect filing fees or petitions was still in question. Let’s move up to the thrilling conclusion:

When injunctive relief is provided for by statute, we review the trial court’s decision on a temporary injunction application for an abuse of discretion. 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. We do not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court and may not reverse unless the trial court’s action was so arbitrary that it exceeded the bounds of reasonableness. Id.

As discussed above, we conclude that the Advisory conflicts with section 141.041 in part by impermissibly expanding the section’s requirements to all minorparty candidates seeking nomination at a convention. Considered in conjunction with Texas Election Code section 273.081, this conclusion supports the trial court’s finding that Appellees “are in danger of being harmed by a violation or threatened violation” of the Election Code. See Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 273.081. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by enjoining Hughs’s enforcement of the Advisory insofar as the Advisory required compliance with section 141.041’s fee/petition requirements by minor-party candidates who have not been nominated by the convention process. See 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. Candidates who ultimately secured their party’s nomination as a result of the convention process, however, must comply with section 141.041. The injunction thus is erroneous to the extent that it relieves candidates nominated by convention of any obligation to comply with section 141.041 at any time. Therefore, we modify the injunction’s language by deleting the bolded text from the following paragraphs:

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from
third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or any other time.

The bolding is in the original, where the appeals court is quoting from Judge Hawkins’ order establishing the injunction. What this says is that the SOS and Harris County were enjoined from enforcing the filing fee requirements at the time that the candidates were being placed on the ballot, but not forever. These candidates were in fact required to pay the filing fee or collect the petition signatures – again, because the court ruled those requirements were legal. That was essentially the status quo when the Democrats successfully defenestrated the Greens, and it is my interpretation that this means the Libertarians would have been equally vulnerable to such a challenge if the Republicans had timely fashion.

All of this is my reading, and I Am Not A Lawyer, so those of you who know better please feel free to point out my idiotic errors. As to what happens next, the plaintiffs may appeal to the Supreme Court – they did not comment about that in the story – and of course there remains the federal challenge, though based on the Ralph Nader experience of 2004, I would not be holding my breath. Use the next year-plus between now and the 2022 filing period to figure out how to pay the fees or collect the signatures, that’s my advice. The Statesman has more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A win for those with lousy signatures

Some good news on the voting litigation front.

As Texas prepares for an expected deluge of mail-in votes in November, a federal judge has found that one facet of the state’s signature verification rules for those ballots is unconstitutional and must be reworked for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Tuesday that the state’s process for determining whether there is a mismatch between a voter’s signature on their ballot envelope and the signature the voter used on their application to vote by mail “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”

In his order, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to inform local election officials within 10 days that it is unconstitutional to reject a ballot based on a “perceived signature mismatch” without first notifying the voter about the mismatch and giving the voter a “meaningful opportunity” to correct the issue.

Additionally, to “protect voters’ rights” in the upcoming election, Garcia said the Texas secretary of state must either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature comparison process, or notify them that they are required to set up a rejection notification system that would allow voters to challenge a rejection.

[…]

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that the law is applied unequally, with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

To correct course ahead of the November general election, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to either halt all rejections based on a “perceived signature mismatch” or implement an “immediate remedial plan” that requires local election officials to notify a voter within one day of determining a perceived mismatch and allow the voter to challenge the rejection.

Under that plan, voters must be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch determination by the local review board. Those who provided phone numbers on their applications must be called at least once within one day of the decision.

See here for the background, and observe how adorably optimistic I was that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue since both parties use voting by mail. What can I say, it was 2019, you had to be there. I don’t have much to say now that I didn’t say then – this ruling makes total sense, the “standard” that was used was arbitrary and needlessly harsh, and it really is in everyone’s interests to make an effort to count these ballots. I assume Ken Paxton will appeal this because that’s what he does, but until then let’s be happy we got what we got. The Chron has more.

They just don’t want you to vote by mail

It’s okay if you’re a Republican, of course.

As states across the country scramble to make voting safer in a pandemic, Texas is in the small minority of those requiring voters who want to cast their ballots by mail to present an excuse beyond the risk of contracting the coronavirus at polling places. But the ongoing attempts by the White House to sow doubt over the reliability of voting by mail has left Texas voters in a blur of cognitive dissonance. Local officials are being reprimanded by the state’s Republican leadership for attempting to proactively send applications for mail-in ballots, while the people doing the scolding are still urging their voters to fill them out.

What was once a lightly used and largely uncontroversial voting option in Texas — one even Republicans relied on — is now the crux of the latest fight over who gets to vote and, equally as crucial in a pandemic, who has access to safe voting.

“Ensuring vulnerable populations can vote by mail during a pandemic is designed to protect human life & access to the vote,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Twitter this week after the county’s mailing plan was temporarily blocked by the Texas Supreme Court. “Those who stand in the way—using voter suppression as an electoral strategy—are throwing a wrench in democracy. We’ll keep fighting.”

[…]

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick characterized efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic as a “scam by Democrats” that would lead to “the end of America.” In a rolling series of tweets, President Donald Trump has pushed concerns of widespread fraud — which are unsubstantiated — in mail-in ballots. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quoted a local prosecutor saying voting by mail “invites fraud.”

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP sent out applications with mailers urging voters to make a plan to request their mail-in ballots. Fighting in court against Harris County’s plan, Paxton’s office argued “voting by mail is a cumbersome process with many steps to limit fraud.”

Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Texas GOP, confirmed the party had sent out ballot applications “like we do every year” to older voters and voters with disabilities that would allow them to qualify. Twombly did not respond to a follow up question on how the party determined voters who would be eligible based on a disability, nor did he respond to questions asking for specifics on the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts tied to voting by mail.

“The cynical explanation is that the intent here is to make it as easy as possible for Republicans to vote by mail but discouraging others and casting doubt over the process following the lead of the president,” said Rick Hasen, an elections lawyer and professor at the University of California-Irvine. “I think that’s a real fine needle to thread.”

It might be in the GOP’s best interest to “encourage voters to vote safely” by mail, particularly as the state’s vote-by-mail rules allow many of their base voters to be automatically eligible for an absentee ballot, but the president is complicating matters for them, Hasen said

“They are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Hasen said.

Some Texas Republicans quietly express frustration that party leaders are casting doubt on a system that they have worked for years to cultivate. West and other prominent Texas Republicans have floated unsubstantiated concerns that increased mail-in voting creates opportunities for widespread voter fraud. In interviews with multiple Republican operatives and attorneys who have worked on campaigns in the state, all suggested privately that the modernized system precludes such a scenario. None of these Republicans would go on the record, for fear of alienating colleagues.

There are some documented cases of fraud in mail-in voting in Texas. But like voter fraud overall, it remains rare.

“This issue … of fraud and voting fraud and all that was brought up years ago, 19 years ago when I was secretary of state,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who was appointed Texas secretary of state by former Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican. “I looked at it as secretary of state, and it was so rare, so rare.”

[…]

In an effort to combat confusion among voters, Harris County said it intended to send the applications for mail-in ballots with “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” In its mailers, the Texas GOP instructs voters to “take immediate action” by confirming they meet the eligibility requirements and filling out an application proactively sent out by the party.

[Derek] Ryan, the Republican voter data expert, suggested that a past Republican campaign emphasis on vote-by-mail lends credibility to the objections Republicans are raising in Harris County.

“Voting by mail is our bread and butter,” said Ryan, the Republican voter data expert. “I kind of dismiss that more ballot by mail votes automatically favor the Democrats over the Republicans. That might not necessarily be the case. I think that kind of says the Republicans who are opposed to it aren’t necessarily doing it because they think it benefits the Democrats. They’re doing it because of election integrity.”

But in light of those objections, the Texas Democratic Party painted the GOP’s mailings to voters who did not request them as “a shocking display of hypocrisy.”

“It seems if Republicans had their way, the only requirement for Texans to cast a mail-in ballot would be ‘are you voting for Donald Trump?’,” Abhi Rahman, the party’s communications director, said in a statement this week.

I don’t know that I have anything to say here that I haven’t said multiple times already. There’s no valid principle behind the Republicans’ zealous objections to vote by mail, which is something they have used and still use but apparently cannot believe that anyone else would dare use against them. The screeching claims of fraud are just the usual shibboleth, packaged for today’s needs. We know that national Republicans have largely given up on their ability to win a majority of the vote. It’s just kind of morbidly fascinating to see Republicans in Texas adopt the same stance. Who knew they had so little faith in themselves?

Wait, there’s a Census going on?

I smack my forehead so hard.

Through a small notice tucked into the state’s business register, Texas appears to have acknowledged that the 2020 census count is going badly.

With just a month of counting to go in the crucial decennial census, the self-response rate for Texas households has barely topped 60%. As census workers have followed up in person with households that haven’t responded, the share of households accounted for has risen to 79.5% — but Texas is still far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

On Aug. 26, the Texas secretary of state’s office quietly put out word that it has up to $15 million to spend on an advertising campaign intended to urge residents to get themselves counted. The effort — which Texas will pay for by dipping into federal dollars meant to address the coronavirus pandemic — amounts to a last-minute about-face by the state, whose Republican leadership had previously shot down any significant state funding for efforts to avoid an undercount.

The urgency the state is feeling a month out from the census deadline is apparent in the timeline of its request for proposals for a broadcast, print and digital campaign to “educate Texans on the significance and value of participating in the 2020 Census” and drive up response rates. The notice was posted last week, and bids are due by Wednesday. The contract is projected to begin two days later. Counting for the census is set to end Sept. 30.

The latest census figures showed that households in urban, Democratic-leaning areas of Texas had filled out the census online, by phone or by mail at higher rates than those in more rural, Republican-controlled areas and South Texas communities. The U.S. Census Bureau’s door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that did not self respond to the census is ongoing.

Wait, you’re telling me that the deliberate choice made by the Republican leadership to not give a dime to Census outreach efforts may actually be coming back to hurt them politically? That’s a plot twist I hadn’t anticipated. Now it all makes some sense – if it was only Dems that were in danger of being screwed, for sure they wouldn’t care now.

The state’s sudden pursuit of a multi-million advertising campaign to promote the count comes more than a year after it left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to fill the organization void in chasing an accurate count.

“It’s frustrating that we’re doing this at the last minute,” said Luis Figueroa, the legislative and policy director for Every Texan, a left-leaning think tank previously known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities that has been at the forefront of census efforts in the state. “We hope there is enough time for it to be meaningful and effective. There’s an adage about ‘better late than never,’ but there is also ‘a day late and a penny short’.”

[…]

If enough Texans are missed in the count, it would jeopardize the three additional seats in Congress the state was expected to gain after this census.

Even as other states put millions of dollars to mount census campaigns, Texas lawmakers during last year’s legislative session declined to put additional state dollars toward the census, rejecting proposals by Democratic lawmakers to create a statewide outreach committee and set aside millions of dollars in grants for local outreach efforts.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Then, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it was cutting moving up the deadline for responding up by a month. Combined with the strain on outreach efforts brought on by the pandemic, the earlier deadline has heightened the risks that Texas will be undercounted and that some Texans, particularly those who are low-income or Hispanic, will be missed in the count as the pandemic continues to ravage their communities.

“Republicans had an opportunity to address this. They refused to do this, and now the secretary of state is in the fourth quarter of the game, in the final seconds, trying to throw a hail mary, and it ain’t going to work,” said state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who had unsuccessfully pursued state dollars for the census. “This is an embarrassment.”

See here for more on that earlier deadline, which is now even earlier than before thanks to continued malfeasance from the federal government. This was a deliberate choice by our Republican state leaders. We will pay the price for that choice for the next ten years.

When HEB is on your side

Who could be against you?

Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week, siding with Harris County on its plan to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the November election.

In the letter, Butt argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan was permissible under the Texas Election Code.

“Clerk Hollins’s efforts to make absentee ballots widely available trusts voters, protecting those who are vulnerable from unnecessary exposure in this new Covid world in which we’re living,” Butt wrote. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

[…]

“Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus,” Butt wrote. “By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court’s opinion and the Election Code.”

Butt previously has weighed in on political debates, and he is a top contributor during election cycles. His campaign contributions cross party lines.

That letter was being quote-tweeted all over the place on Wednesday. One could look at this and furrow one’s brow at the intervention by a wealthy individual, one who does play a fair amount in Texas politics, in a court case like this. One could also shrug one’s shoulders and say that this looks an awful lot like an amicus brief, except it was released on Twitter instead. I lean towards the latter, and given the overheated and frankly harmful rhetoric being unleashed by Trump and Paxton and the like, I’m glad that Charles Butt decided to speak up and inject a little sanity into the discourse. Your mileage may vary. Reform Austin has more.

Supreme Court issues possibly pointless stay in mail ballots case

This story doesn’t quite say what it seems to say, as we will see.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked Harris County from sending mail-in ballot applications to all its voters for the November election.

The decision Wednesday came in response to a lawsuit filed days ago by Republicans in the state’s largest county. Attorney General Ken Paxton has since launched his own legal challenge to the plan.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins announced last month that the county would send applications to its more than 2.4 million registered voters, an effort to make it easier to participate in the election due to the coronavirus pandemic. After being sued by Paxton, Hollins said he would only send applications to voters 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail under state law, pending the litigation.

The Harris County GOP lawsuit alleges that Hollins is a “rogue clerk who is abusing the application to vote by mail process and compromising the integrity of elections in Harris County.” The lawsuit was brought by the county party, conservative activist Steve Hotze and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill.

See here and here for the background. Before we go on, let’s look at the actual order released by SCOTX:

The Emergency Motion for Temporary Relief is GRANTED in part. In conformance with the Rule 11 agreement in State of Texas v. Hollins (No. 2020-52383, 61st Judicial District Court, Harris County), Real Party in Interest Hollins is ordered to refrain from sending applications to vote by mail to registered voters under the age of 65 who have not requested them until five days after a temporary injunction ruling in State of Texas v. Hollins. The Real Party in Interest should inform the Court of any developments in State of Texas v. Hollins that may affect this order.

[Note: The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.]

Emphasis mine. This is of course what Hollins had agreed to do, so functionally there are no changes since yesterday. The reason for this stay is that it came from the Hotze mandamus action, whereas Hollins’ agreement to suspend any mailings to under 65 voters came from the state lawsuit. Note also that this does not in any way affect the mandamus itself – as the Court says, that’s still pending. There should be a hearing on the state lawsuit early next week, which corresponds with the timeline for this order as well. Bottom line, nothing has changed here.

One more thing:

Amid the latest legal chapter Wednesday, Democrats called Republicans hypocrites for apparently sending out their own mail-in ballot applications while fighting Harris County’s plan in court. Hollins tweeted pictures from a mailer, paid for by the Texas GOP, that says President Donald Trump “is counting on you” and urges recipients to fill out an attached mail-in ballot application after confirming they are eligible.

“Much like Trump, Texas Republicans have been exposed as hypocrites to the highest degree,” state Democratic Party spokesperson Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Voting by mail is safe, secure, and convenient.”

Remember how much the Republicans whined about straight-ticket voting in 2018, even as they were exhorting their own voters to vote a straight Republican ticket? It’s like that. Pay no attention to the noise machine.

County Clerk scales back mail ballot application sendout for now

Seems like a wise tactical move.

Chris Hollins

The Harris County clerk is holding off his plan to send ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County.

County Clerk Chris Hollins said for now he is going to send ballot applications to everyone 65 and older.

Hollis added he will wait for the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to work its way through the court to see if he can send ballot applications to other people in the county.

Hollis also said he tried to discuss this with the Texas Secretary of State but a discussion did not take place. Then Paxton filed his lawsuit on Monday, according to a report from the Texas Tribune.

See here for the background. Sending an application to all the 65-and-over voters is what Clerk Hollins did for the primary runoffs, and no one raised a fuss about it. It seems clear that Hollins has the law on his side, as confirmed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in a recent chat with the Chron editorial board, but politics plays a role as well, and one could argue that turning down the heat a bit is in Hollins’ best interests. One could also argue that getting the state to do something stupid isn’t a bad idea either, but I’ll set that debate aside for now. For now, we wait for some action in the courtroom. The Chron and the Press have more.

(On a side note, Bexar County will be sending vote by mail applications to all of its 65-and-over voters as well. As I said before, this sort of thing should be the norm going forward.)

Fifth Circuit hears arguments on vote by mail case

One more try before it’s too late to make a difference for this year.

The Texas Democratic Party’s lawyer argued today before a federal appeals court that the state is unlawfully discriminating against the majority of the voting-age population by requiring only those under the age of 65 to have an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot.

It’s one of several last-minute battles playing out in the months leading up to the 2020 election, which is expected to yield historic turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

[…]

The Democrats’ federal case is expected to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the clock is ticking. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Texas is October 23, leaving just about seven weeks for the appellate court and high court to rule on it.

At Monday’s hearing, Chad Dunn, representing the Texas Democratic Party, told the court that the Texas mail-in voting law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote can’t be “denied or abridged” on account of age.

Dunn said previous elections have shown that voters will likely be waiting in long lines in November.

“We’re asking voters — certain ones of them get excused from that endurance test and others, based purely on their age, are to suffer through it,” Dunn said. “The fact of the matter is that when individuals’ characteristics are used by the government to divvy up who gets to vote, those are prohibited” by the Constitution.

The state, represented by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, argued that Supreme Court precedent exists to show that the Texas law does not violate the 26th Amendment.

“It does not deny or abridge the right to vote to make voting more available to some groups as opposed to others,” Hawkins said. “To abridge the right to vote does not mean giving other groups more options; it means taking away something from a certain group.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, the other vote by mail-related lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss. We should get a ruling of some kind in this lawsuit before the deadline to mail out overseas ballots, which is September 18. I have no idea if there’s time for any action on the other one.

This Statesman story from earlier in the day on Monday has some more background info on the case.

Monday’s arguments will focus on the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, saying the right to vote cannot be denied or restricted “by any State on account of age” for those 18 and older.

Just as other constitutional amendments ensure that voters cannot be treated differently based on race or gender, the 26th Amendment uses identical language to extend voting protections based on age, said Chad Dunn, who will argue Monday on behalf of Democrats before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am confident that we will ultimately ensure that everybody, regardless of age, has the right to vote by mail,” Dunn told the American-Statesman.

[…]

The age question has drawn the interest of at least one influential observer: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

When Texas Democrats raised the issue at the high court this summer, the nine justices declined to accept the case. Sotomayor was the only one to discuss the reason.

The Democrats’ challenge, she wrote in late June, “raised weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment.”

However, justices balked at addressing those questions for the first time at the high court, and Sotomayor urged the 5th Circuit Court to make a speedy decision in the matter.

Many others hope for a quick resolution as well. In Texas, voting for the November election begins in less than seven weeks.

[…]

The case before the 5th Circuit Court will determine the fate of a May order by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who required mail-in ballots to be sent to any registered Texas voter who requested one while “pandemic circumstances” continue.

“One’s right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature. Citizens should have the option to choose voting by letter carrier versus voting with disease carriers,” Biery wrote.

Paxton appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court responded by blocking enforcement of Biery’s order until the appeal can be decided.

That ruling by a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit was notable for its harsh criticism of Biery for wading into election decisions that belong to “politically accountable officials,” not judges.

“The spread of the virus has not given unelected federal judges a roving commission to rewrite state election codes,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

A different three-judge panel, however, will hear Monday’s oral arguments and decide whether the 26th Amendment bars Texas from denying mail-in voting to those under age 65. Two of the judges on the new panel were appointed by Democratic presidents — Carolyn Dineen King and Carl Stewart — while the panel’s third member, Leslie Southwick, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

A ruling won’t come Monday, but with the election looming, the appeals court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule.

The Texas Democratic Party’s challenge has drawn considerable interest, with additional legal briefs filed by liberal and conservative public interest groups, health professionals, advocates for the disabled, other states and local political parties.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir also submitted a brief with election officials from Harris, Cameron and Fort Bend counties that begged the 5th Circuit Court to accept the 26th Amendment arguments and expand mail-in voting.

“Unless access to vote by mail is increased significantly, providing a safe election will be impossible because of the expected high volume of in-person voters this presidential year,” their brief said.

On the one hand, almost 30 doctors and nurses, including epidemiologists and front-line health workers, told the court that it is essential to reduce the number of people gathering on Election Day to protect voters, poll workers and the community from COVID-19, while the Texas NAACP argued that the state’s Republican leaders adopted a needlessly restrictive interpretation of mail-in voting law to impose a severe and unacceptable burden on the right to vote.

On the other hand, a brief from conservative legal interest groups argued that Biery improperly interfered with the state’s authority to regulate the time, place and manner of elections in favor of widespread mail-in voting, which should be allowed in only limited circumstances because it is more vulnerable to fraud than traditional voting.

Originally, there were two lawsuits, one filed by the TDP that argued COVID vulnerability was sufficient to be considered a “disability” and allow anyone who claimed that to get a mail ballot, and one filed by other groups that argued the existing limit of vote by mail to those 65 and over (plus those who claim a disability, which as we know was not clearly defined and is being argued about in other venues) violates the 26th Amendment, which is the one that lowered the voting age to 18. Both were combined into this lawsuit, and as you can see the 26th Amendment claim is the main thrust from the plaintiffs. We’ll see what we get.

And now the state has sued to stop the Clerk’s mail ballot application program

Such a busy day in court.

Acting at the request of the secretary of state, the Texas attorney general on Monday sued Harris County after it refused to drop plans to send applications for mail-in ballots for the November general election to more than 2 million registered voters.

Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking a state district court to bar Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins from proactively providing the applications to every registered voter in the county, alleging Hollins does not have the authority under state law to carry out the plan.

[…]

There is no state law that specifically prohibits election officials from sending out mail-in ballot applications to all voters. Instead, Paxton argues that county clerks are only “expressly empowered” by the Texas Election Code to send out applications to voters who request them, “but there is no statute empowering County Clerks to send applications to vote by mail to voters who have not requested such an application.”

“And Hollins’s plan to send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter, regardless of whether the application was requested or whether the recipient is qualified to vote a mail ballot, is not an exercise of power that is necessarily implied to perform his duties,” Paxton wrote.

The legal action was sought by the secretary of state’s office, which last week demanded the county retract its plan by Monday at noon. The secretary of state’s office has advised counties seeking to proactively send out applications to limit those mailings to voters who are 65 and older — the only predetermined qualification for a mail-in ballot in Texas — to avoid confusion about eligibility.

The secretary of state’s office claimed that Harris County’s endeavor would amount to “abuse of voters’ rights,” raising the prospect that sending applications to all voters, including those who do not qualify, may cause confusion among voters and “impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so” by “clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure” with applications from voters who do not qualify.

But Harris County refused to back down from its plan, with Hollins noting that the county’s mailing would also include “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail.” The county has also previously indicated it is planning to purchase more mail-sorting equipment and hire hundreds of temporary workers who will focuse on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots.

“They have taken the position that somehow sending the form that would make it easier for someone to vote is somehow impeding a person’s ability to vote,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “The lack of logic in that assertion is beyond me.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the AG’s filing is here. There are two main differences between this action and the Hotze filing. One is that this is a lawsuit filed in Harris County district court, for which the AG will seek a temporary restraining order, while the Hotze action is a writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court. The other is that this one seems to make a narrower claim about the law in question, which is that the Lege didn’t give the Clerk this power and so the Clerk does not have it. It’s not as problematic or nonsensical as the Hotze argument, but it still fails my “plain reading” test and still invites the question of why anyone else would be empowered to do this if the Clerk is forbidden. You can read the other post, I’m not going to repeat myself. I will also confess that I didn’t read the AG’s filing, mostly because it was later in the day when this story hit and I was tired. I expect it’s less ridiculous than the Hotze filing, but that is a very low bar to clear. As of this moment, I have no idea what the schedule for this may be, but for obvious reasons there should be some action quickly. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Hotze and the Harris County GOP try to stop the Clerk from sending out mail ballot applications

It’s mandamus time! Again.

The Harris County Republican Party on Monday joined a lawsuit asking the Texas Supreme Court to halt the county clerk’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

The lawsuit accuses County Clerk Christopher Hollins of ignoring the court’s June ruling on mail ballots and misreading the Texas Election Code.

“Harris County has a rogue clerk who is abusing the application to vote by mail process and compromising the integrity of elections in Harris County,” the suit states. The other plaintiffs in are conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, and Sharon Hemphill, a Republican running for judge in the 80th Judicial District Court.

[…]

The suit argues that the Election Code states residents must request a mail ballot application, and that absentee voting in Texas is reserved for a small group of voters. Since the code does not specifically permit a county clerk or elections administrator to send mail ballot applications to residents who do not request them, the suit claims this practice is illegal.

Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that nothing in the Texas Election Code prohibits Harris County from mailing applications to whomever the clerk chooses.

The plaintiffs also claim Hollins disregarded the Supreme Court’s June ruling, which held that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone did not qualify voters for a “disability,” one of three conditions that permit a resident to vote by mail in Texas.

Hollins and the Harris County Attorney’s Office have interpreted the ruling to mean that fear of the virus can constitute one of several factors to meet the disability standard. Since the county clerk has no duty to challenge mail ballot applications, this effectively leaves voters to decide for themselves where they qualify.

See here and here for the background. This mandamus makes two arguments, both of which seem incredibly thin to me. One is a rehash of the state Supreme Court opinion in the earlier lawsuit by the TDP to expand vote by mail, in which SCOTX agreed with the state that “lack of immunity to COVID-19” did not qualify as a “disability” under the law that defined vote by mail eligibility. That opinion also concluded that it was up to the voter to determine whether or not they met the definition of “disability” under this law, and that local election administrators have “no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”. Their claim is that this means that it’s illegal to send people who may not qualify for a mail ballot an application for a mail ballot, which sure looks to me like an enormous leap. I can certainly imagine SCOTX taking an opportunity to clarify their earlier ruling, but I would hope they’d prefer to do it after a case has been argued and facts established by a lower court.

The other argument is an even bigger head-scratcher. Allow me to quote:

III. State Law Requires Voters to Request an Application to Vote by Mail

The Texas Election Code § 84.012 states: CLERK TO MAIL APPLICATION FORM ON REQUEST. The early voting clerk shall mail without charge an appropriate official application form for an early voting ballot to each applicant requesting the clerk to send the applicant an application form.

Limitations on voting by mail and fraud related to the voting by mail process has been the subject of “intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country.” In re State, 602 S.W.3d 549, 550 (Tex. 2020). This Court has not taken “a side in that debate,” and has left the decisions regarding voting by mail “to legislators and others.” Id.

The issue before this Court is not whether the application process for voting by mail is a better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. This Court’s “authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent.” Id.

Here’s the law in question. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I am capable of reading an English-language sentence and inferring its meaning. I say the plain meaning of this text is that the intent of the Legislature was to mandate that County Clerks send a mail ballot application to anyone who requests one. The purpose of this law is to remove any discretion from the Clerk’s procedure – in other words, to forbid a Clerk from deciding not to send someone a mail ballot application because the Clerk thinks that person is ineligible or whatever else. I’m hard-pressed to see how this could be interpreted any other way.

The law, as written, does not specify that the Clerk may not send an application to anyone who did not specifically ask for one. Nor does it say that they Clerk may only send an application to those who do. It just says that if a Clerk gets a request for a mail ballot application, the Clerk must send the mail ballot application. What else would it mean?

The relators elaborate on their argument a couple of paragraphs later, and it’s almost as if they’re trying to make my argument:

A. The plain language of Texas Election Code § 84.012 prohibits Respondent from sending applications to all registered voters.

Texas statutes are to be interpreted based on their plain language. See Leland v. Brandal, 257 S.W.3d 204, 206 (Tex. 2008). The Court presumes the Legislature included each word for a purpose and that words not included were purposefully omitted. In re M.N., 262 S.W.3d 799, 802 (Tex. 2008). It also presumes the Legislature understood and followed the rules of English grammar. Tex. Gov’t Code § 311.011; See also Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 140 (2012) (describing the presumption as “unshakeable”).

[…]

The plain language of the statute makes it clear that the clerk shall mail the appropriate official application form for early voting only to “applicant[s] requesting the clerk to send the application form.” Id. The Texas Election Code § 84.012 does not allow for the clerk to send applications to all registered voters.

The Legislature’s refusal to add such language is consistent with the Legislature’s desire to curtail fraud associated with voting by mail. If the Legislature had wanted to require the clerk to send the application to vote early to all registered voters, they could have done so. Additionally, if they wanted the clerk to have this option, they could have provided it in the language of the statute. Instead, the Legislature limited the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it.

Emphasis in the original. Note how the word “only” in the penultimate paragraph is not included in the quote from the law. That’s because that word was not included in the law. Like I said, it’s almost as if they agree with me.

I would also point out that if the Legislature really did intend to “limit the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it”, then campaigns and political parties have been violating this law with impunity for decades. I myself would have violated it in 2018 when I participated in HCDP phone banks to remind voters that the HCDP had already sent mail ballot applications to complete them and mail them in. Remember how the TDP recently boasted about sending out zillions of mail ballot applications to voters this year? Or for that matter how County Clerk Hollins sent mail ballot applications to all registered voters 65 and over for the primary runoffs? No one filed any mandamuses over those actions. That’s because the law does not forbid them. Capische?

Now again, the relators here are trying to wedge the door open to allow SCOTX to revisit its opinion from that earlier suit and clarify that no, actually, only people who are Legitimately Disabled (whatever that means) can get mail ballots. That would mean not only making up a new law on the spot but also defining how to enforce it, and while I would not put it past the Supreme Court to try and pull such a stunt, it would be a big goddamn mess if they did so. I don’t think they have it in them, but we’ll see.

One more thing: Do go and give this mandamus a scan – the link from above is to a Quorum Report post, and the mandamus filing is there as a downloadable PDF. Look at how much of the language in this filing is about buzzwords and slogans – fraud! rogue! more fraud! – and how little refers to actual law and precedent. Now compare it to the mandamus writ in the attempt to knock Libertarian candidates off the ballot, which whatever you may think of it is sober, to the point, and full of citations. Maybe it’s just me, but the former comes off as desperate, while the latter has some faith in its arguments. Campos has more.

SOS objects to Hollins’ mail ballot application plan

I suppose this was inevitable.

In a letter dated Aug. 27, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state, told Harris County to “immediately halt” its plans to send every registered voter in the county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election. Ingram demanded the county drop its plan by Monday to avoid legal action by the Texas attorney general.

Sending out the applications “would be contrary to our office’s guidance on this issue and an abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code Section 31.005,” Ingram wrote, citing a provision of state law that gives the secretary of state’s office power to take such action to “protect the voting rights” of Texans from “abuse” by local officials responsible for administering elections.

[…]

“Providing more information and resources to voters is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in response to the state’s letter. “We have already responded to the Secretary of State’s Office offering to discuss the matter with them.”

[…]

The secretary of state’s office has advised counties seeking to proactively send out applications to limit those mailings to voters who are 65 and older to avoid confusion about eligibility. But there appears to be no state law that specifically prohibits sending out applications to all voters.

On Friday, Harris said the county’s mailing would also include “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” While the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus alone doesn’t qualify a voter for a mail-in ballot based on disability, a voter can consider it along with their medical history to decide if they meet the requirement. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without personal assistance or the “likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Voters will, of course, make their own decisions about if they qualify to vote by mail,” Hollins said.

In his letter, Ingram raises the prospect that sending applications to all voters, including those who do not qualify, may cause confusion among voters and “impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so” by “clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure” with applications from voters who do not qualify.

In applying for a mail-in ballot, voters must check off which of the state’s eligibility criteria they meet. (The secretary of state allows any voter to request an application for a mail-in ballot through its online portal without asking whether the voter meets the eligibility requirements.)

See here for the background. As the Chron story notes, Ingram’s plan is to get Ken Paxton involved if Hollins doesn’t back down by Monday. The thing is, though, as both stories note, there’s no actual law that says what Hollins did was illegal. Remember what the State Supreme Court opinion said when the original TDP lawsuit that made the claim that the pandemic itself was a condition that qualified voters for the disability provision in the mail ballot law:

We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

If “the decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s”, and “election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”, then what exactly is the problem with an election official giving each voter the explicit opportunity to make that decision for themselves? If you think that the two sentences that wrap around the ones I quoted from make the whole paragraph somewhat contradictory, I understand. Perhaps the lawsuit Paxton is no doubt itching to file would clear that up. The point is, this is not at all clear as the law now stands.

I’ll be honest, it will be all right by me if Hollins does back down, and instead limit himself to sending mail ballot applications to everyone 65 and older, and everyone who applied for a mail ballot in either the March primary or the July runoff. I do think that his effort here has the chance to confuse some folks, and the plethora of voting locations as extended early voting hours goes a long way toward mitigating any concerns about coronavirus risk for in person voting. That said, Hollins has taken a strong stand for making it as easy and convenient to vote as possible for everyone, and it’s shocking how bold that actually is. How is it that such a stand represents so powerful a departure from the way things had always been done? I think from a purely strategic viewpoint, Hollins can walk this back, having made his point and laying down a marker for the next Democratic Legislature in Texas. If he refuses to back down from this very honorable and principled position, everything will be immediately cranked up to 11, and I fear that the distraction will do more harm than good. But whatever Hollins does choose to do next, he has shown us what voting in Harris County, and all of Texas, should look like. Let’s not forget that.

Weekend voting litigation news

I have two news items about voting-related lawsuits. Both of these come via the Daily Kos Voting Rights Roundup, which has been increasingly valuable to me lately, given the sheer number of such lawsuits and the fact that some news about them either never makes the news or does so in a limited way that’s easy to miss. For the first one, which I have been unable to find elsewhere, let me quote directly from the DKos post:

A federal court has rejected the GOP’s motion to dismiss a pair of Democratic-backed lawsuits challenging a 2019 law Republicans enacted to ban mobile voting locations that operate in a given location for only part of the early voting period. The law in question requires that all polling places be open for the entire early voting period, but because this puts additional burdens on county election officials’ resources, many localities have opted not to operate so-called “mobile” polling places altogether.

Democrats argue that the law discriminates against seniors, young voters, voters with disabilities, and those who lack transportation access in violation of the First, 14th, and 26th Amendments.

This was originally two lawsuits, one filed in October by the Texas Democratic Party, the DSCC, and the DCCC, and one filed in November by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, the Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Emily Gilby, a registered voter in Williamson County, Texas, and student at Southwestern University serving as President of the Southwestern University College Democrats (the original story listed this plaintiff as Texas College Democrats, but they are not mentioned in the ruling). These two lawsuits were combined, and the ruling denying the motion to dismiss means that this combined lawsuit will proceed to a hearing. Now, I have no idea how long it will take from here to get to a hearing on the merits, let alone a ruling, and as far as I know there’s no prospect of an injunction preventing the law in question (HB1888 from 2019), so this is more of a long-term impact than a 2020 thing, but it’s still good news. I should note that there was a third lawsuit filed over this same law, filed in July by Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters. That one was filed in San Antonio federal court, while this one was in Austin. I do not know anything about that lawsuit other than the fact that it exists. Like I said, this stuff is hard to keep up with.

The ruling is here, and it’s not long if you want to peruse it. The motion to dismiss argued that the Secretary of State could not be sued because it didn’t enforce voting laws, that the plaintiffs did not have standing because the injuries they claimed under HB1888 were speculative, and that HB1888 was constitutional. The judge rejected the first two claims, and said that once standing and the right to sue were established, the constitutionality question could not be answered in a motion to dismiss because the state had a burden to meet for the law to be constitutional, even if that burden is slight. So it’s on to the merits we go. Now you know what I know about this particular offensive against one of Texas’ more recent attempts to limit voting.

Later in the Kos roundup, we learned about a brand new lawsuit, filed by the Hozte clown car crowd, which is suing to overturn Greg Abbott’s executive order that extended early voting by an additional six days.

Conservative leaders and two Republican candidates have filed suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that added six days of early voting for the November election as a pandemic-inspired safety measure.

The extension, they argued, must be struck down as a violation of the Texas Constitution and state law.

“This draconian order is contrary to the Texas spirit and invades the liberties the people of Texas protected in the constitution,” the lawsuit argued. “If the courts allow this invasion of liberty, today’s circumstances will set a precedent for the future, forever weakening the protections Texans sacrificed to protect.”

The lawsuit was the latest attempt by prominent conservative activist Steven Hotze to overturn Abbott’s executive orders and proclamations in response to the coronavirus.

None of Hotze’s suits to date has succeeded, but the barrage of legal challenges highlights the difficulty Abbott is having with his party’s right wing, which questions the severity of the pandemic and opposes limits on businesses and personal decisions.

The latest lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Travis County state District Court, was joined by Republican candidates Bryan Slaton, running for the Texas House after ousting Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, in the GOP primary runoff, and Sharon Hemphill, a candidate for district judge in Harris County.

Other plaintiffs include Rick Green, a former Texas House member from Hays County, and Cathie Adams, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas and a member of Eagle Forum’s national board.

In late July, when Abbott extended the early voting period for the Nov. 3 election, he said he wanted to give Texas voters greater flexibility to cast ballots and protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Beginning early voting on Oct. 13, instead of Oct. 19, was necessary to reduce crowding at polls and help election officials implement safe social distancing and hygiene practices, Abbott’s proclamation said. To make the change, Abbott suspended the election law that sets early voting to begin 17 days before Election Day.

At the same time, Abbott also loosened vote by mail rules allowing voters to deliver completed ballots to a county voting clerk “prior to and including on election day.”

The Hotze lawsuit, which sought to overturn that change as well, argued that Abbott’s emergency powers do not extend to suspending Election Code provisions and that the early voting proclamation violates the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine because only the Legislature can suspend laws.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the Texas secretary of state from enforcing Abbott’s proclamation and a court order declaring it unconstitutional.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Abbott did extend early voting, though whether it was in response to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ request or if it was something he was always planning to do – remember, he did do the same for the primary runoff election – is not known. What is known is that the State Supreme Court has shown little patience for Hotze and his shenanigans lately. The quote in the story from the lawsuit may be one reason why – there’s a lot more heat than facts being alleged, and even a partisan institution like SCOTX likes to have some basis in the law for what it does. The fact that the extension of early voting for the July runoffs went unchallenged would seem to me to be relevant here – if this is such a grave assault on the state Constitution, why was it allowed to proceed last month? The obvious answer to that question is that there’s a partisan advantage to (potentially) be gained by stopping it now, whereas that wasn’t the case in July. My guess is that this goes nowhere, but as always we’ll keep an eye on it. Reform Austin has more.

Finally, I also have some bonus content relating to the Green Party candidate rejections, via Democracy Docket, the same site where I got the news about the mobile voting case. Here’s the temporary restraining order from the Travis County case that booted David Collins from the Senate race and Tom Wakely from CD21; it was linked in the Statesman story that I included as an update to my post about the mandamus request to SCOTX concerning Wakely and RRC candidate Katija Gruene, but I had not read it. It’s four pages long and very straightforward, and there will be another hearing on the 26th to determine whether the Texas Green Party has complied with the order to remove Collins and Wakely or if there still needs to be a TRO. Here also is the Third Court of Appeals opinion that granted mandamus relief to the Democratic plaintiffs regarding all three candidates:

Molison and Palmer are hereby directed to (1) declare Wakely, Gruene, and Collins ineligible to appear as the Green Party nominees on the November 2020 general statewide ballot and (2) take all steps within their authority that are necessary to ensure that Wakely’s, Gruene’s, and Collins’s names do not appear on the ballot. See In re Phillips, 96 S.W.3d at 419; see also Tex. Elec. Code § 145.003(i) (requiring prompt written notice to candidate when authority declares candidate’s ineligibility). The writ will issue unless Molison and Palmer notify the Clerk of this Court, in writing by noon on Thursday, August 20, 2020, that they have complied with this opinion.

“Molison” is Alfred Molison and “Palmer” is Laura Palmer, the co-chairs of the Texas Green Party. Since the question of the state lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party over the filing fee mandate came up in the comments on Friday, here’s what this opinion says about that, in a footnote:

We note that although the Green Party and other minor parties and candidates have attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the filing-fee or petition requirement in federal and state court, the statute is currently in effect and enforceable. The federal court denied the parties’ and candidates’ motion for preliminary injunction on November 25, 2019. See Miller v. Doe, No. 1:19-CV-00700-RP, (W.D. Tex., Nov. 25, 2019, order). Although the state district court granted a temporary injunction on December 2, 2019, temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees from the general election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition, the State superseded the temporary injunction, and an interlocutory appeal is pending before the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. See Hughs v. Dikeman, No. 14-19-00969-CV, (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], interlocutory appeal pending).

Emphasis mine. So there you have it.

Do not wait with your mail ballot

You have been warned.

The U.S. Postal Service has warned Texas officials that some ballots cast by mail may not arrive in time to be counted for the November election thanks to certain state deadlines for mail-in ballots being incompatible with its delivery standards.

“This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be retuned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them,” Thomas Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the USPS, wrote to Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in a letter dated July 30. “As a result, to the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted.”

It is unclear how many Texas voters may be affected should such delays occur. A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, which provided The Texas Tribune with a copy of the USPS letter, could not immediately be reached for comment about whether the agency plans to make changes ahead of the election.

Texas was among 40 states, including Florida and Michigan, that received a warning from the USPS over their long-standing deadlines, according to The Washington Post. Six other states and Washington, D.C., received more mild warnings from the Postal Service that said some ballots may be delayed for a smaller group of voters.

You can see a copy of the letter here. This is of course all a part of the larger Trump strategy to suppress votes by destroying the Postal Service. This has to do with the deadline for requesting a mail ballot, which is eleven days before the election, or October 23 this year, according to the SOS calendar. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is very clear that that is way way way too late this year.

So what to do about this, other than hound your elected officials to raise holy hell about this? Well, if you receive a mail ballot application and intend to use it, get that sucker in ASAP. Like, seriously, next day. If at all possible, once you receive and fill out your mail ballot, take it to a dropoff location, wherever your county has them. They can be open all three weeks of early voting, so again, get on it early and take no chances. The rest of you, make a plan to vote in person. I guess the good news for Texas is that the vast majority of us vote in person anyway, so that’s what we need to do the heavy lifting for. But for crying out loud, if you are voting by mail this year, get on it ASAP and either use a dropoff location of send it in right away. There is truly no time to lose. The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: From Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins:

“In Harris County, we are expanding voter access to give voters more options to have their voice heard and cast their votes safely. Voting by mail is hands down the safest method to vote this November. I encourage all eligible voters to apply to vote by mail and return their application and ballot as soon as possible to avoid delays.

“Voters concerned with mail delays will be able to drop off their marked ballot in-person at any of the County’s eleven offices and annexes during business hours, beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM. This is the first time in Harris County history where voters can drop off their marked ballots during the Early Voting Period to ensure on-time delivery. We encourage eligible voters to use this method of voting to avoid long lines at voting centers.

“The earlier you apply to vote by mail, the faster my office can mail your ballot to you. Don’t hesitate to mail it back to us, but you also have the choice to utilize our drop-off locations to return your ballot directly.”

There will be dropoff locations at some if not all early voting locations as well. You have options. Just don’t wait to use them.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

Update on that other vote by mail lawsuit

From Daily Kos:

A federal judge has rejected Republican Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’ motion to dismiss a case brought by several Texas voters and civil rights organizations seeking to expand access to absentee voting for the November general election.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to prepay the cost of postage; require officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward (currently, they must be received by the day after the election); prevent the state from using arbitrary standards to reject absentee ballots for allegedly non-matching signatures without giving voters a chance to fix any problems; and allow third parties to collect and turn in completed absentee ballots.

Based on a schedule the judge previously set out, a ruling on plaintiffs’ requests is not likely until after Labor Day.

See here for the background. This lawsuit, unlike the TDP lawsuit that is awaiting action from the Fifth Circuit or the age discrimination lawsuit, which is also on hold pending action with the first lawsuit (info per the DKos Elections Litigation Tracker), is not about who is allowed to vote by mail. It is about the barriers that exist for those who are eligible to vote by mail. Here’s a summary of the plaintiffs’ claims, from the court ruling (the first link in my excerpt above):

First, Plaintiffs challenge Section 86.002 of the Texas Election Code’s failure to provide prepaid postage for mail-in voters. Id.; Tex. Elec. Code § 86.002 (“Postage Tax”). Second, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement mail-in ballots be postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on election day and then received by the county no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day after the election in order to be counted. See Tex. Elec. Code § 86.007 (“Ballot Receipt Deadline”). Third, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement that voters must submit two signature samples that “match,” according to local election officials, in order to have their early voting ballots counted. Id. § 87.027 (“Signature Match Requirement”). Fourth, Plaintiffs challenge the criminalization of a person assisting a voter in returning a marked mail ballot. Id. § 86.006 (“Voter Assistance Ban”).

The effect of this lawsuit, if the plaintiffs prevail, would be to make it easier for the people who can vote by mail to do so, and would likely reduce the number of ballots rejected for not having a legally accepted signature. That would be fairly small in the aggregate, but it would be quite meaningful for some number of people. The defense had also filed a motion opposing an expedited schedule, which the judge (Orlando Garcia, whom you may recall from previous redistricting cases) also rejected. The last filing in that schedule is for September 4, so perhaps we’ll get a ruling not too long after that. I have also read somewhere – it may have been on Daily Kos, I just don’t remember – that the Fifth Circuit is going to expedite the appeals hearing for the TDP vote by mail case, so who knows, maybe we will get some clarity before November. Doesn’t mean it will be good clarity, but it ought to be something.

Another lawsuit filed over mobile voting locations

Don’t know that there’s enough time for this to be heard, but it’s a good idea.

Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters this week filed a suit against the state over its election policies, alleging they discriminate against minority voters who are disproportionately hurt by the pandemic.

The suit, filed Thursday in San Antonio federal court, alleges that the state’s “insufficient” number of polling places and “limited and inaccessible” early voting locations will result in unsafe voting conditions and voter suppression.

“Texas proposes to rely on election policies that, during the pandemic, will create inordinate burdens on the right to vote,” the suit states. “The burden will be particularly high for Black and Latino voters. Without the relief this lawsuit requests, voters’ exercise of the franchise will be compromised.”

The wide-ranging suit seeks a court order to suspend the Texas law that limits mobile early voting sites, to force the state to extend the duration of early voting and allow the opening of additional polling places in counties where lines typically exceed 20 minutes.

There’s some additional detail in the Trib.

Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs are named as defendants, but the suit targets some decisions that are ultimately up to local officials. The long list of changes the plaintiffs are seeking includes a month of early voting, an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place.

The plaintiffs also want to overturn a relatively new statewide election law that ended the long-established practice of setting up temporary or mobile early voting sites that could be moved around during the early voting period to reach as many voters as possible near where they live, work or go to school. They are asking the court to allow counties a temporary reprieve from that 2019 law, which is the target of a separate lawsuit filed last year.

To “ensure that polling sites are safe and of low risk to the health of all registered voters,” the suit also seeks that the state be ordered to open additional polling places and provide enough voting booths and workers to keep waits to less than 20 minutes.

(Polling places for general elections are ultimately designated by county commissioners courts.)

[…]

Without offering details, Abbott has previously indicated he will be ordering an expansion to the typical two-week early voting period for November. Extended early balloting has been one of the main ways in which state Republican leaders, who have vehemently opposed an expansion in voting by mail, have modified election processes during the pandemic.

I’m aware of two previous lawsuits filed over HB1888 from the last legislative session, which basically required that any early voting location had to be in operation for the entirity of early voting, so no more one-day popup locations on a college campus or at a senior center or whatever. That will have the effect of reducing voting locations, since the whole reason these had been temporary before was that there wasn’t enough money and/or poll workers for them to operate the whole time. Anyway, the TDP, DCCC, and DSCC filed one suit, and the Texas Young Democrats and Texas College Democrats filed the other, both last November. Both stories only referenced the TDP/DCCC/DSCC lawsuit, which maybe is an oversight and maybe means the second suit got tossed or joined with the first one. Far as I know, there’s been no court action on either of them, so I can’t say I expect a result from this one. But it can’t hurt to try.

Some brief runoff thoughts

You know the drill here…

– The Election Night Results page at the SOS shows 955,735 votes total in the Democratic Senate runoff. That number is likely to increase a bit over the next few days, as we’ll see shortly. It means about 300K votes were cast on Tuesday, a bit more than thirty percent of the overall total. This turnout is the highest of any Democratic primary runoff since 1990, back when Dems were the dominant party.

– That turnout was fueled in part by the Senate runoff, and in part by a burning anger at the botched pandemic response and zealous attempts by the Republicans to curtail mail voting. Some national folks commented on this, and how it maybe lends credence to the whole “Texas is in play” narrative, and not just at the Presidential level. We’ll keep checking on the polls going forward to see how far that carries us.

– As there were no statewide Republican runoffs, a direct turnout comparison is tricky. The early voting total for Republicans was 421K, not too shabby all things considered. So maybe they got to 600K or a bit higher.

– Let’s talk mail ballots for a minute. Texas Elects has a terrific overview, but let’s focus on this:

Absentee ballots are counted by a subset of election officials known as the Early Voting Ballot Board (EVBB). Well, in many counties, there are two EVBBs for primary and runoff elections. County political party chairs are the presiding judges, and there are at least two other members. A separate Signature Verification Committee with as many as 12 members may also be created, and larger committees are possible. If you’re interested in the minutiae of all this, the Secretary of State’s 2020 EVBB handbook (pdf) has it in spades.

Counties with a population of 100,000 were able to convene their Early Voting Ballot Boards as early as July 4 (likely July 6 because of the holiday) to begin the process of qualifying and scanning mail ballots. Counties with populations under 100,000 were able to convene their EVBBs as early as last Friday.

An absentee ballot may only be accepted if:

  • The carrier envelope was “properly executed”
  • The voter’s signatures on the ballot application and carrier envelope were not signed by someone else, unless it was a lawful witness
  • The ballot application states a legal ground for voting by mail (In other words, one of the pre-printed boxes is checked or otherwise marked and the voter hasn’t hand-written some other reason, like coronavirus)
  • The voter is registered to vote
  • The ballot was sent to the applicable address; and
  • If required, a statement of residence was included and properly completed.
  • It also has to be received by the county election official by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day, with exceptions for certain overseas civilians and military voters.

When the EVBB accepts the ballot, the voter’s name is entered on the poll list and the ballot is separated from the envelope. The ballots cannot be counted until polls closed on Friday, the end of the early voting period, in counties with 100K or more residents, and until polls open tomorrow (Tuesday) in all other counties.

This is an easily overwhelmed process. All of this requires human intervention. Absentee ballots arriving by 7 p.m. on Election Day are supposed to be counted and included in election night results. There is reason to believe that a significant number of absentee ballots will arrive very late in the process. For example, as of Friday, Harris Co. had received more than 70K absentee ballots, and another 74K had not yet been returned.

Mail ballots received on Election Day are still treated as “early voting” and will be included within the early vote canvass. In close races, we will be noting who is ahead among absentee ballots, as that may provide an advantage as more votes are counted. Or not.

All of this is to put perspective on why we may not have definitive results on Election night. All of this may be magnified in November, and not just in Texas.

That’s why the final vote totals may creep up a bit, and also something to think about for the fall. You may want to ask your local elections administrator what you can do to help.

More along those same lines.

As dress rehearsals go, Tuesday’s Texas primary runoff elections weren’t bad, but for some voters and poll workers, they revealed problems that need to be fixed before November’s big show.

With much lower turnout than primary or general elections, the first in-person election day during the coronavirus pandemic saw voters reporting heavily sanitized polling places, an ample supply of gloves, finger cots or pencils to mark up their ballots, and socially distanced lines. With a tiny ballot in many places, some were in and out of polling places in minutes.

But some Texans who sought to vote by mail — and submitted their applications on time — indicated they never received their ballots. Some opted instead to vote in person. Others went uncounted. It’s unknown how many were affected.

Other voters sent in their mail-in ballots only to have them returned unopened. Some of those reached county elections offices after a second attempt, while others still appeared lost on election night. It’s also unknown how many were affected.

In some counties, previously advertised polling places were shuttered at the last minute for lack of workers, some fearing the pandemic or reluctant to risk exposure to voters who were not required to wear masks. Others walked off the job Tuesday morning after discovering some of their fellow poll workers wouldn’t be donning masks.

And throughout the night, the Texas secretary of state’s portal for reporting election night returns was either broken or incorrect, first displaying garbled numbers in various races on the ballot and later showing discrepancies with county reports.

“I would say a number of the problems we saw in this election are red flags that, left unaddressed, could result in massive problems in November,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

At least the SOS website got fixed in relatively short order. The rest of it, yeah. No one should have to do this to cast a ballot.

– Looks like there will be a fight over the CD23 Republican result. Good luck sorting that one out, fellas.

– The SD14 special election runoff needs to be scheduled. I expect it to be in the end of August or so. My condolences to everyone in that district who will have to see two perfectly good Democrats rip each other up for the next six weeks or so.

– Beyond that, I don’t have any deep insights at this time. We’ve got a good slate of candidates, and as of Wednesday we’ll start seeing June finance reports for everyone. Eyes on the prize in November, y’all.

How can you vote if you currently have coronavirus?

There is one way, if it is approved.

Thousands of Harris County voters who recently have tested positive for coronavirus and now are quarantined should be allowed to vote online in the primary runoff election, County Attorney Vince Ryan argued in an emergency court filing Thursday.

The novel voting method has never been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

If approved by a state district judge, the estimated 10,000 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the July 2 deadline to apply for a mail ballot would be allowed to submit a ballot via email. Forcing infected residents to vote in person would risk “putting thousands of other voters at risk,” Ryan wrote.

“The effect of this is to leave thousands of Harris County voters with a choice: 1, violate their quarantine and risk exposing poll workers and other voters to a deadly virus, or 2, become disenfranchised and lose their constitutional right to vote,” Ryan said. “That is a choice no Texan should be forced to make.”

A hearing [was] scheduled in the 80th District Court for 4 p.m. Friday. Ryan filed the brief on behalf of County Clerk Christopher Hollins.

The Dallas County elections administrator in 2014 obtained a court order allowing residents quarantined by the Ebola outbreak to submit mail ballots via email.

The Texas Election Code also permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas.

[…]

Ryan said Harris County’s request follows COVID-19 elections guidance issued in April by Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, which said counties may want to consider seeking court orders to expand voting options for quarantined voters. A spokesman for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I admit, I did not know that this was a possible option. It makes sense, and in practical terms it’s likely that only a small number of people would actually vote in this fashion. I mean, even with record-breaking turnout in this primary runoff, we’re still going to fall short of ten percent of all registered voters in Harris County. More to the point, given that most of the people who would have voted in this election already have, we’re talking maybe two or three percent turnout among those who have not yet cast a ballot, so maybe 200 or 300 people total. I’d still take the under on that bet. But the principle is solid, and if the law allows for this, then by all means let’s do it. I assume we’ll get a quick ruling on this, I’ll keep my eyes open for confirmation of that and will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: And the answer is no.

A state district judge on Friday denied a request by Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins to allow thousands of voters who recently tested positive for coronavirus, and now are quarantined, to vote online in the primary runoff election.

The novel voting method never has been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Judge Larry Weiman, however, said he shared concerns raised by the Harris County Republican Party that online voting was not secure. Weiman, a Democrat, also said at the emergency telephone hearing that the county clerk had not produced an example of a voter being disenfranchised by exposure to coronavirus.

“The plaintiff hasn’t shown any injured party,” Weiman said.

[…]

The Harris County Republican Party and Texas Attorney General’s office argued against the plan. Assistant Attorney General Anne Mackin said Hollins’ proposal amounted to a “rewrite of the Texas Election Code,” which already provides ill voters a method to vote by mail after missing the application deadline, so long as they are able to physically produce a doctor’s note.

Hollins sought to have that requirement waived in favor of an emailed statement certifying a voter has been exposed to COVID, saying infected residents or members of their household risk infecting county employees by delivering a form to a public building.

“It’s inappropriate to substitute a new process,” Mackin said.

The Election Code permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas. Attorney and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, and attorney Kevin Fulton argued on behalf of the Republicans that method requires service members to use secure email addresses which allow elections administrators to verify their identities.

Weiman said he shared these concerns about security. He invited the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Election Code if lawmakers feel they are needed.

It was a nice idea while it lasted, but there would have been issues. The fact that there were no named voters asking for this is a legitimate point. It would have been very nice to be able to test something like this in a low-stakes primary runoff, in case it’s needed in November, but I think we probably do need to have the Lege address some issues first. There are ways to make this process secure, none of which I suspect would have been available now, and the need for a written-on-paper doctor’s note is obviously archaic. If this experience can serve as a template for updating the relevant bits of the election code, it will still have been a useful exercise.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Maybe we should have had this election in May

Oh, the irony.

When the coronavirus threat was newer and seemed more immediate, Texas postponed its May elections to pick winners in several party primary runoffs, fearing the health risks of exposing voters and poll workers.

With those statewide elections about to take place, the health risks voters face are now arguably greater than when the runoffs were initially called off.

The virus appears to be in much wider circulation than the original May 26 runoff date, with the state coming off a full week of record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations and several consecutive days of record highs for daily reported infections.

But voters won’t be required to wear masks at polling places. Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier expressed concerns about exposing Texans “to the risk of death” at crowded polling sites, has forbidden local governments from requiring people to wear them in public.

And Texas Republicans, led by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, have successfully fought off legal efforts by Democrats and some voters to let more people vote by mail if they are fearful of being exposed to the virus at polling places.

With early voting starting June 29 and election day July 14, voters are largely left on their own to balance exercising their right to vote against the health risks that come with going to the polls in a pandemic. Some fear endangering themselves, while others fear bringing the virus back into homes they share with immunocompromised loved ones. The runoffs are relatively small elections with low turnout expected — the marquee race is the Democratic showdown to see who will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November — but they’ll prove an instructive test run for what Texas might face come November’s high octane general election.

[…]

Across the state, election administrators have been trying to rework the mechanics of in-person voting to see how safe they can make it. Plastic barriers will go up at check-in stations and poll workers will be wearing an assortment of protective equipment like masks, shields and finger covers. A bounty of hand sanitizer will be at the ready. In some counties, voters will receive styluses or craft sticks to mark up their ballots to avoid contact with voting equipment.

The Texas Secretary of State has offered voters a list of suggestions for keeping safe, like screening themselves for symptoms and bringing their own hand sanitizer to the polls.

Wearing masks is also something voters might want to consider, the state’s chief election officer suggests.

On the one hand, I think it’s very clear that we would have been in a less dangerous situation with the pandemic. Infection and hospitalization rates are higher now and growing, thanks in large part to Greg Abbott’s insistence on “reopening the economy” at all costs. On the other hand, you could argue that we know more about how to mitigate risk than we did even a month ago, and having a lower-turnout election now, with the opportunity to see what works well and what doesn’t, will serve us well for November. That’s grim comfort for anyone who feels like they’re risking their health or the health of a loved one to exercise their right to vote, and it really highlights how poorly the state has done to manage the pandemic, but I think there’s value to it. We have a plan and we’ll get to test-drive it. Still not a great trade, but one hopes we’ll get something out of it.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

Voter, sanitize thyself

WTF?

With voting in the primary runoff election starting next month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas secretary of state on Tuesday issued “minimum recommended health protocols” for elections, including a suggestion that voters bring their own hand sanitizer to the polls and that they “may want to consider” voting curbside if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

In an eight-page document, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs laid out checklists for voters and election workers that range from self-screening for symptoms to increased sanitation of voting equipment — none of which are binding and many of which were already being considered by local election officials planning for the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its recommendations, the state said voters should consider wearing cloth face masks, bringing their own marking devices — like pencils with erasers or styluses — and using curbside voting if they have a cough, fever, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Voters in Texas have long had the option of having a ballot brought to them outside their polling place if “a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

The state instructed local election officials to place markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing and to keep at least 6 feet between voting stations. Election officials should also consider having all employees wear masks, the secretary of state said.

The recommendations are meant to serve as a baseline, and county officials can adopt additional protocols. Early voting for the July primary runoff starts June 29.

Man, this is weak. The main takeaway here is that the state of Texas really, really doesn’t want to do anything to make it safer or easier for anyone to vote. Let’s put aside the hotly-contested question about allowing more voting by mail and consider two fairly simple alternatives the state could do in this regard. One, the state could pay for the extra supplies that voters or county officials if they are willing and able are being encouraged to provide for themselves. A few million bucks from Greg Abbott’s discretionary fund would go a long way towards buying hand sanitizer, pencils, masks and gloves for poll workers, and so forth, not just for the July election but for November as well. Additionally, and speaking of November, Abbott could use his emergency powers – or call a special session if this would be too legally questionable – to extend the early voting period for November to four weeks. That would do a lot to address concerns about long lines and crowds of people crammed inside polling places waiting their turn. He extended the early voting period for July to address this, which I do appreciate. But no, we get this limp mixture of “you might wanna bring some Purell with you, and oh yeah, mark some spots on the floor”. Are you kidding me?

Republican voters should be unhappy about this inability to engage with the actual issue, too. This isn’t hard. And surely I’m not the only one looking at that recommendation to voters that they spend their own money to provide their own risk mitigation and thinking that telling voters there’s a cost to voting they have to pay amounts to a poll tax. If there isn’t a lawsuit filed over this, I’ll be quite surprised. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the state to take this seriously.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

First federal vote by mail lawsuit hearing

One down, two to go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery heard arguments Friday in a federal lawsuit seeking to give all voters the option to vote by mail due to fears of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

[…]

During Friday’s federal court hearing, Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn argued that concerns about coronavirus should not disqualify someone from exercising their right to vote. Doing so discriminates against classes of voters, such as voters under the age of 65.

Requiring people under the age of 65 to vote in person creates a “survival of the fittest election,” Dunn said via videoconference, and an impossible choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, voters will be left in a “twilight zone,” unclear if they can apply for a mail-in ballot or not, Dunn said.

The Texas Democratic Party named Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen as defendants in the suit. Other plaintiffs include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other individual voters Joseph Daniel Cascino, Shandra Marie Sansing, and Brenda Li Garcia.

They are seeking a preliminary injunction for the finding that the current election conditions violate tenets of the First, 14th and 26th amendments as well as some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The suit also requests that the defendants stop issuing threats of criminal or civil sanctions for helping voters vote by mail.

Biery said he could not estimate when he would issue a ruling in the case. “All I can tell you is it will be forthcoming,” he said. “No guarantee as to when.”

Robert Green, an attorney representing Bexar County and Callanen, said the county “is not here to take a position” on the various legal arguments presented by the Democratic Party or by the State. However, Green stated that counties have no mechanism or authority to investigate what “disability” a voter cites in an application for a mail-in ballot.

“A voter who believes that they are eligible … is permitted to indicate that solely by checking a box,” he said. “If a court were to order or if the Secretary of State were to issue guidance that local officials should reject certain disability applications if they’re premised on some COVID-related fear or lack of immunity, it’s not clear at all that local officials would be able to do that because the application does not allow voters” to explain their disability, he said.

Lack of immunity to COVID-19 is a physical condition, Green said. “A voter lacking that immunity is endangered by in-person voting. I think that that’s an inescapable reality.”

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, not long after this hearing came the State Supreme Court ruling that for now at least halted efforts to encourage people to apply for mail ballots. The people who have already asked for them and cited “disability” as the reason will presumably still receive them – as noted, there’s neither a process nor the authorization to check on that. The other two federal lawsuits are not on the calendar yet as far as I know. I have no idea if we’re going to have a clear ruling on this in time for the primary runoff. Of course, the question of what comes after that is even bigger, so this story is just getting underway. Stay tuned.

LULAC joins TDP’s federal mail ballot lawsuit

More plaintiffs, more fun.

A prominent Latino civil rights group is jumping into the fight to expand Texas’ voting-by-mail eligibility, alleging the restriction that limits age eligibility for voting by mail to those 65 and older disproportionately harms Texas Latinos because they tend to be younger in age.

The League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms signed on Tuesday to the Texas Democratic Party’s federal lawsuit against the state raising claims that the state’s absentee voting restriction is unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination against voters based on race.

“All voters will face substantial health risks by voting in person. But the consequences of voting in person will not be equally shared among Texas’ demographic populations,” reads LULAC’s complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Antonio.

LULAC cited census estimates that show nearly two out of every three adults older than 65 in Texas are white, indicating that the pool of voters eligible to request a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in is predominantly white.

“This means that the younger and minority voters, including many of LULAC Plaintiffs’ members, are disproportionately harmed by Defendants’ enforcement of the Eligibility Criteria,” the organization argued. “Nearly a third of Texas’s Latino voters are between the ages of 18-29.”

See here for the background. As noted, there’s a hearing this Friday for this suit. There’s also the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, both in federal court, and the other TDP lawsuit, in state court. Kind of amazing there are this many seemingly viable arguments for allowing greater access to mail ballots, isn’t it? Almost like our state laws are overly restrictive. Doesn’t mean any of these will make it past the Fifth Circuit, but they’re going to have to work hard to shoot these all down.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

Turns out there are a lot of obstacles to voting by mail in Texas, and so there are a lot of lawsuits being filed by various plaintiffs to rectify that.

A coalition of voters and civil rights groups opened a new front Monday in the legal wars over mail-in voting in Texas during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Several lawsuits already underway challenge state limits on who can vote by mail, but a lawsuit filed Monday dives into the mechanics of mail-in balloting, arguing that existing rules will deprive voters of their constitutional rights in the middle of a public health crisis. In the federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio, five Texas voters with medical conditions, Voto Latino, the NAACP Texas and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans argue that four existing rules for absentee voting will place undue burdens on the right to vote, or risk disenfranchising Texans, during the pandemic.

First, they’re challenging a requirement that voters pay postage to return mail-in ballots, arguing that it amounts to a poll tax during a public health crisis. Second, they’re challenging a requirement that sets deadlines for when ballots must be postmarked and received, arguing that the window should be extended. Third, they object to a requirement for matching signatures on the flap of a ballot envelope and the signature used on an application to vote by mail, which they argue discriminates against voters with disabilities whose signatures may change. And fourth, they’re challenging restrictions on the assistance absentee voters can get to return a marked ballot.

Naming Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as the defendant, they’re asking a federal judge to block the state from enforcing the provisions.

“Even if all registered voters are eligible to vote by mail in Texas in the November election, that would not be sufficient to prevent the serious risk of disenfranchisement and threats to public health that will occur if the Vote By Mail Restrictions remain in place in the pandemic,” the plaintiffs, who are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, wrote in their complaint.

[…]

But the latest challenge brings in voters who already qualify to vote by mail based on their disabilities but who must navigate the provisions for absentee voting in question during the pandemic. Among the plaintiffs is George “Eddie” Morgan, a 63-year-old former nurse in Dallas who has a genetic lung disorder and has been in strict isolation during the coronavirus outbreak in his community.

Morgan receives $19 dollars a week in food stamps and relies on food banks. To obtain postage for a mail-in ballot online to remain in isolation, he would have to purchase an entire book of stamps for $11, according to the lawsuit.

“The Postage Tax’s burden on the right to vote is severe. At best, it requires Texans — millions of whom are vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19 or have vulnerable loved ones — to pay to vote by mail so that they can avoid exposing themselves to the virus while exercising their right to vote,” the plaintiffs wrote. “At worst, it disenfranchises the millions of Texans who cannot risk exposure to COVID-19 but who also cannot obtain postage to mail their ballots.”

To recap, we have the federal lawsuit filed by the TDP, which has its first hearing this Friday, which argues that the threat of coronavirus qualifies as a disability under the law for anyone who wants to request a mail ballot. We have the federal age discrimination lawsuit, which alleges that the 65-and-over provision for requesting a mail ballot violates the 26th Amendment. We have the state lawsuit, also filed by the TDP on the same grounds, for which a judge has issued an order allowing anyone to request a mail ballot for the July runoff, with a hearing set for later on the merits, which would allow the same for November and beyond. That order is being threatened by Ken Paxton, and the plaintiffs have filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals to end those shenanigans. Oh, and now a couple of activists have filed a complaint in Dallas County alleging that Paxton’s communication to county election officials constitutes voter fraud on Paxton’s part. I believe that sums it all up.

This lawsuit goes in a slightly different direction. It argues that even if everyone were granted the ability to request a mail ballot today, there would still be problems. In a rational world, with a well-designed election system, of course mail ballots would be postage free for exactly the reasons cited by the plaintiffs, there would be no effort to criminalize helping someone who needs it to fill out their ballot, and signature matching would be done in a fair and efficient manner. We obviously do not live in that world, but maybe we can take a step towards it with this flurry of litigation. At the very least, I hope they’re all losing sleep in the Solicitor General’s office. The Chron has more.

The TDP motion for a fast ruling in their federal vote by mail lawsuit

I mentioned this in passing in yesterday’s post, so here are some more details.

Updating an ongoing lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday asked a federal judge in San Antonio to issue an order by May 15 requiring state officials to expand vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections.

The motion also asked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to block Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton “from threatening voters with criminal or civil sanctions” if they vote by mail over fears of contracting the coronavirus at polling places.

The fast deadline is required, the petition argued, because county election officials need clarity as they prepare for primary runoff elections and a special election to fill the seat of retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — both set for July 14.

[…]

On April 15, state District Judge Tim Sulak ordered expanded ballot access due to coronavirus concerns, a ruling that Paxton has appealed. That same day, Paxton issued a statement saying that fear of contracting COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse under state law.

“While the state Court has ruled that under age 65 voters can use the disability exemption to vote absentee, the Attorney General has threatened to prosecute those who engage in this activity,” the updated federal lawsuit said.

“Texas’ law discriminates on its face against younger voters by creating two classes of voters: those 65 or older and are able to access absentee ballots and those under 65, who generally cannot,” the lawsuit argued. “When in-person voting becomes physically dangerous, age-based restrictions on mail ballot eligibility become constitutionally unsound.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume the state will file its response shortly. There really is a compressed schedule here, because the more mail ballots that will need to be sent out, the more time election administrators will need to handle the requests. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.