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Southwest Voter Registration Education Project

A brief update on the Gutierrez/Eckhardt redistricting lawsuit

First news we’ve had in awhile.

Plaintiff: Democratic state Sens. Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt

What the lawsuit argues: Ahead of lawmakers’ third special session, two Democratic state senators sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. The senators argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

If successful, the federal lawsuit by Sens. Eckhardt of Austin and Gutierrez of San Antonio, with political organization Tejano Democrats, would require judges to create interim redistricting plans for the Legislature to use in the 2022 election cycle.

What’s next: The case, filed Sept. 1 in federal court in Austin, has been assigned to a three-judge panel of Reagan appointee Jerry Smith, Obama appointee Robert Pitman and Trump appointee Jeffrey Brown.

State lawyers have asked the court to consolidate the LULAC case with the senators’ case, and asked the court to abstain from a state matter. The officials also argued the plaintiffs misinterpreted the state constitution and cannot challenge the old maps.

On Tuesday, both sides indicated that the plaintiffs intend to pursue similar claims in state court. The three-judge panel then ordered the parties to file a joint status report “when they have determined the impact of the litigation in state court on this case.”

See here for the background on this lawsuit. The LULAC case is the one filed in mid-October after the maps were passed but before they were signed into law, with LULAC and several other groups as plaintiffs, and with MALDEF doing the filing. That lawsuit challenged all of the maps, including the Congressional map – the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit only challenged the legislative maps, as they are the ones that are covered by the state constitution.

What this sounds like to me is that the two Senators will file a new lawsuit in a state court, and action on the federal side will be put on pause until there is some kind of ruling there, at which point the three-judge panel will consider what its next steps are. I’ll keep an eye out for any news about that filing.

On a side note, this story also had a brief update about the Voto Latino lawsuit. That one was also assigned to a three-judge panel, and it too had an Obama appointee, a Trump appointee…and Jerry Smith. Who was involved in (I believe) the consolidated redistricting cases from the last decade. Do they keep him on ice just for these situations, or is is the luck of the draw? I am mystified. Reform Austin has more.

First lawsuit filed against the redistricting maps

Why wait? We already know they suck.

Before they’ve even been signed into law, Texas’ new maps for Congress and the statehouse are being challenged in court for allegedly discriminating against Latino voters.

Filing the first federal lawsuit Monday in what’s expected to be a flurry of litigation, a group of individual voters and organizations that represent Latinos claim the districts drawn by the Legislature unconstitutionally dilute the strength of their votes and violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit was filed in El Paso by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The legal challenge comes as the Legislature rounds out its redistricting work to incorporate a decade of population growth into new maps for Congress, the Texas House and the Texas Senate. Of the 4 million new residents the state gained since 2010, 95% were people of color; half were Hispanic.

Yet the maps advanced by the Republican-controlled Legislature deny Hispanics greater electoral influence — and pull back on their ability to control elections. The House map drops the number of districts in which Hispanics make up the majority of eligible voters from 33 to 30. The Congressional map reduces the number of districts with a Hispanic voting majority from eight to seven.

Here’s the MALDEF press release, and the lawsuit itself is here. From the introduction:

Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the redistricting plans for the Texas House (Plan H2316), Senate (Plan S2168), SBOE (Plan E2106) and Congress (C2193) violate their civil rights because the plans unlawfully dilute the voting strength of Latinos. Plaintiffs further seek a declaratory judgment that the challenged redistricting plans intentionally discriminate against them on the basis of race and national origin. Plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction prohibiting the calling, holding, supervising, or certifying of any future Texas House, Senate, Congressional and SBOE elections under the challenged redistricting plans. Plaintiffs further seek the creation of Texas House, Senate, Congressional and SBOE redistricting plans that will not cancel out, minimize or dilute the voting strength of Latino voters in Texas. Finally, Plaintiffs seek costs and attorney’s fees.

Glad to know that the SBOW map won’t go unchallenged this time around. The plaintiffs include include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Mi Familia Vota, American GI Forum, La Union Del Pueblo Entero, Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, Texas Hispanics Organized For Political Education (HOPE), William C. Velasquez Institute, FIEL Houston Inc., the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and five individual voters. Defendants are Greg Abbott and Greg Abbott and Deputy Secretary of State Jose Esparza. I expect this will be the first of multiple lawsuits against the actual maps; we also have the still-untested lawsuit by Sens. Eckhardt and Menendez that claimed the Lege could not do non-Congressional redistricting in a special session. There’s supposed to be a hearing for that next week. Given that the three maps in question there might already be signed into law by that time it may be moot, but I’m just guessing. As you know I don’t have much optimism for any of these challenges, including the ones that haven’t been filed yet, but we have to try anyway. You never know.

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latino turnout was up in 2016

That’s what the numbers say.

Nearly 30 percent more Texas Latinos went to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, reducing the participation gap with other Texas voters and signaling to some observers that elections will become increasingly competitive in the Lone Star State.

Non-Latino voters increased by a more modest 9.2 percent between presidential elections, according to newly released numbers from the Texas Legislative Council.

The percentage of registered Latinos who went to the polls also increased from 2012, from 47.2 percent to 49.8 percent. But that turnout rate remained well below that of non-Latino voters, which was 62.9 percent in 2016. That represented a decrease from 2012 when turnout was 65.4 percent among non-Latino voters.

As a result, the share of the electorate with a Spanish surname increased from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 19.4 percent in 2016. Latinos make up 38 percent of the Texas population, but historically vote at lower rates than Latinos in other states and other groups in Texas.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones called the increase “notable, but not dramatic,” and said it mirrored jumps in past presidential elections.

“The Texas electorate becomes more Latino and less Anglo with every passing electoral cycle,” Jones said. “But the increase is fueled primarily by natural demographic trends rather than by a dramatic spike in participation rates among Latinos.”

State officials obtained the numbers using a count based on a list of Spanish surnames; the numbers don’t account for every Latino voter.

[…]

According to an analysis of early voting figures in 20 large counties, Derek Ryan, a political consultant and former research director of the Texas Republican Party, found that new voters are driving the increase in Latino participation: 18.7 percent of ballots cast by voters with Spanish surnames came from those with no electoral history in Texas; for non-Latinos, only 12.8 percent came from new voters.

Voter registration among Latinos also increased 20 percent over 2012 compared with 14 percent for non-Latinos. Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said the registration and turnout numbers for 2016 elections are higher than her group anticipated, but she said Texas remains a state that puts high barriers to voter registration.

I don’t think any of this is surprising, but I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, for the reasons articulated in the second section I highlighted. What are the trend lines here? How does the turnout rate compare to the voting age population and the share of the VAP that is registered? Latino voters are everywhere, but the bulk of them are in two distinct places, along the border and in big urban areas, primarily Harris, Bexar, and El Paso counties. How have these rates changed over time in those places, and everywhere else? There’s a lot more information I’d like to have before I drew any conclusions about what this particular piece of data may mean.

One thing I do agree with is that a big driver in the increase in Latino participation is the increase in voter registration. That’s what drove the increase in overall turnout in Harris County. No question that needs to be a Democratic priority going forward, as a lot of those new registrations are going to come from people who have just turned 18, new citizens, and people whose registrations had lapsed because they had moved. You want to understand why the Legislature is not interested in making it easier to register, there’s your answer right there.

How turnout happens

If there are a lot of new voters turning out in Harris County this year, the Texas Organizing Project will be the reason why for a lot of them.

The untapped power of the Latino electorate is one of the enduring motifs of modern Texas politics. If only Hispanic voters could be persuaded to show up at the polls—so goes the narrative—the “sleeping giant” could turn Texas blue. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. About five million Texas Latinos—more than one quarter of the entire electorate—are eligible to vote. But their registration and turnout lag behind Texas as a whole. In 2012, according to Census data, only 39 percent of eligible Latino voters cast a ballot, compared with 54 percent of Texans overall.

TOP is trying to change those numbers. The organization, which focuses on issues that are important to local communities of color, has been working since 2009 to increase voter turnout among Latinos and blacks. As evidence of the group’s success, the director of electoral strategy, Crystal Zermeno, points to a 5 percent increase in the Latino share of the vote in Harris County between 2008 and 2012. Given Trump’s incendiary comments about Hispanics and immigrants, many expect that Latinos will be more motivated than ever to show up at their polling places this year. In the two months leading up to Election Day, TOP’s temporary staff—the group has 37 full-time employees—will call or visit 400,000 people in Harris County.

But Latino voter participation has remained modest because of factors far more complex than personal apathy. Latino voters are a young group, and young people generally turn out in lower numbers. Plus, many are first-, second-, or third-generation Americans who don’t have a family tradition of voting.

“For a lot of folks, partisanship or political behavior is something that’s passed down through their parents and grandparents,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an adjunct professor of Mexican American and Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “You don’t have that same custom in the Latino community.”

Nor are they accustomed to hearing from candidates, since campaigns usually invest resources in voters who have turned out regularly in the past. A recent poll found that 60 percent of the country’s registered Latino voters had not been contacted by any campaign, political party, or get-out-the-vote organization this cycle. In places like Houston, this is exacerbated by the fact that, as Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the San Antonio–based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), puts it, “nobody cares about Texas.” Because it’s not a battleground state, Texas receives limited attention from national donors.

Texas also has some of the country’s most stringent laws regulating voter registration, requiring that voters register at least thirty days before the election. Still, SVREP predicts that more than two million Texas Latinos will vote this month—a 5 percent increase from 2012. To make sure that happens, groups like TOP are doing what research shows is most effective for engaging new voters: knocking on doors.

As we know, there are a lot of newly-registered voters, both locally and nationally. People who have an established habit of voting are going to vote. People who don’t have such a habit, which includes the newly registered, may need a push to get to the polls. It’s hard work and it doesn’t scale, but the kind of in-person discussions that TOP is having is the best way to do that. There’s a reason why some people are freaked out by the prospect of greater participation in this election. You want to make a difference, this is how you do it.

Lawsuit filed against Bexar County over voter ID info

We’re still fighting this out.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

An advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against Bexar County for misinforming voters about the state’s voter ID rules.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), filed the lawsuit Friday afternoon on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP). MALDEF attorneys argue that since Monday, October 24, the first day of early voting, Bexar officials have given out false information about Texas’ voter ID rules in polling places across the county and on a recorded message to voters on the elections website.

The faulty information, MALDEF attorneys say, does not reflect the current court-ordered voter ID rules and could discourage eligible voters from casting their ballots. The current rule lets any Bexar County resident vote, even if they don’t have one of seven state-issued photo IDs. Voters can sign a sworn statement at the polls confirming they don’t have an ID, and show another document that proves their residency (like a bank statement).

In previous elections, Texas residents were required to show a photo ID before voting. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos tweaked the requirements for the November 8 election after ruling that the state’s original voter ID rules intentionally discriminated against black and brown voters. Ramos had demanded the state spend at least $2.5 million to swiftly educate voters on the new rules. Texas officials, however, put that money toward posters and pamphlets with misleading information that made these rules appear unchanged.

According to the lawsuit, Bexar County has failed to closely follow Ramos’ orders. MALDEF attorneys have demanded the county replace the incorrect information immediately.

After SVREP staffers heard about the incorrect posters and documents at Bexar polling places on Monday, they alerted the county’s elections
administrator, Jacque Callanen. Callanen held a press conference on Tuesday, insisting that all incorrect signs had been taken down.

But on Thursday, the attorneys allege, nine voting locations still displayed posters displaying invalid voter ID laws and had elections staffers giving false ID information.

See here and here for some background, and here for MALDEF’s press release. Though there have been various problems reported around the state relating to voter ID and the way the requirements are communicated, this is the only legal action I know of. By the end of the day Friday, the judge in this suit had granted a temporary restraining order to MALDEF that among other things orders Bexar County to remove the incorrect signs and make sure other materials are up to date. Hopefully everything was fixed over the weekend, but whatever the case I would not be surprised if this in not the last time we hear these complaints. KSAT and KRWG have more.

How long will we talk about Latino turnout before someone does something about it?

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.

On Saturday, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project announced its 2012 goal of raising Latino voting in Texas to 2 million from the 1.7 million who voted in the last presidential election, according to its own polling.

Like other groups, SVREP sets up at community events to engage nonvoters. After registering new ones, it puts them in a phone database.

“Our niche has always been to contact new voters and help that voter become a high-propensity voter,” SVREP Vice President Lydia Camarillo said.

“We believe that there will be 300,000 new voters compared to ’08, which would be the highest increase in Texas history,” she said.

Altogether, Latinos 18 and over represent a potential voting bloc of 6.1 million in Texas that has still to exercise its power.

Political science Professor Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University thinks SVREP’s goal is unrealistic.

“Only 1.2 million Latinos cast votes in the 2008 presidential election in Texas. Two million votes cast in 2012 is a very ambitious target, more likely to inspire voter registration workers than actually to be met,” he said.

[…]

“But the most curious approach to voter registration has not been by the Republicans,” Jillson said. It’s been the Democratic Party, which “has never taken voter registration as seriously as it needs to.”

He said Democrats ought to focus on naturalization first.

“Thirty percent of Hispanics are noncitizens, but many of them are eligible to become citizens,” he said.

Jillson also accuses some Democrats of being comfortable with current turnout and not being particularly interested in increasing the number of non-Anglo Democratic voters.

“It’s an important, but delicate issue.” he said.

“The Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994,” Gambitta added in email comments. “They will not carry this state in the near future unless they increase the size of the voting population to include those who rarely vote.”

But what really irks him is the lackluster attention the Democrat Party gives “to the large, untapped, eligible youth vote.”

“It’s amazing, simply amazing, in fact, it’s tragic,” [UTSA’s Richard] Gambitta said, “especially when the debt is being laid on the heads of the young as the members of both parties kick the can down the road on the huge deficits, and simultaneously cut education.”

I don’t disagree with any of this, but as I’ve said before, the issue that never seems to get discussed whenever this topic comes up is M-O-N-E-Y. All these things cost money, lots of money. The TDP is an easy scapegoat, but they don’t have any money. Most of the county parties don’t have much money, either. I’m sure we could have a lively discussion about whose fault all of that is, but it’s not going to help with the matter at hand. Where is the money going to come from to address these issues, and who is going to be in charge of it to resolve them? That’s what I’d like to know. Frankly, I don’t see how any of this gets anywhere in the absence of a Presidential campaign, which is why I keep hoping that Team Obama decides to give a challenge to Rick Perry here in his back yard. If we’re starting out with 2008 as the baseline for 2012, and we remember that Rick Perry is less popular than you might think here, it makes sense to me. But it’s not up to me, so all we can do is keep talking. Campos has more.