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Supreme Court

One last, desperate attempt to kill drive-though voting

These guys really suck. Not much more can be said.

A new challenge to Harris County’s drive-thru voting sites, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House, asks the state Supreme Court to void ballots “illegally” cast by voters in cars.

That could put more than 100,000 ballots at risk, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats and raising fears among voters, including those with disabilities and others who were directed into drive-thru lanes as a faster method of voting.

[…]

One of the unsuccessful challenges was filed by the Republican Party of Texas. The second was from the Harris County GOP, activist Steven Hotze, and Sharen Hemphill, a GOP candidate for district judge in Harris County. Neither petition sought to void votes.

That changed with the latest petition filed shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday by Hotze, Hemphill, GOP congressional candidate Wendell Champion, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

The new petition asks the all-Republican Supreme Court to confiscate memory cards from voting machines at drive-thru locations and reject any votes cast in violation of state election laws.

The petition argues that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who submit a sworn application saying they have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

“Hollins is allowing curbside/drive-thru voting for all 2.37 million registered voters in Harris County. This is a clear and direct violation of his duties,” the petition argued.

But Hollins has said drive-thru voting is just another polling place with a different layout and structure, and that it was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted.

Vehicles form lines and enter the voting area one at a time, where a clerk checks each voter’s photo ID, has them sign a roster and hands over a sanitized voting machine. Voting typically takes place in large individual tents, and poll watchers can observe the processing of voters no differently than in traditional voting locations, Hollins has argued.

See here for the previous entry. As I said yesterday, I just don’t believe the Supreme Court will do this. It’s such a drastic step to take, it’s punitive towards a lot of voters who had every reason to believe they were doing something legal, it would be an enormous partisan stain on the court and the justices, four of whom are on the ballot themselves, and as I said if the court felt such an outcome was in play, they could have clearly signaled it earlier to minimize the effect on the voters. Maybe I’m naive, or willfully blind. This just seems like a bridge way too far. I guess we’ll find out.

SCOTX upholds Abbott’s limit on mail ballot dropoff locations

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

In what’s expected to be the final ruling on the matter, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to only one drop-off location for voters to hand deliver their absentee ballots during the pandemic.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the all-Republican court, is the final outcome in one of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenged Abbott’s order from early this month. A federal appeals court also sided with the Republican governor in an earlier ruling, overturning a lower court’s decision.

The state lawsuit argued that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand-delivery locations, and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution. The suit was filed in Travis County by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group and a voter.

In their opinion, the justices wrote that Abbott’s order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

See here for the previous update. In a narrow and technical sense, the Supreme Court is correct. Abbott did in fact expand voting options with his original order, which not only added that extra week to early voting but also allowed for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period. State law only allows for that on Election Day, one of many problems that will need a legislative fix in the near future. But we all know that the purpose of his amended order, more than two months after Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had announced his plan to have dropoff locations at all 12 County Clerk offices, and several days after people began using those locations, was to issue a rebuke to Hollins for having the nerve to innovate like that, and to throw a bone to the howling nihilists in his own party that were attacking him for taking any step to make voting easier. The limit served no legitimate purpose, and was done in haste and with politics in mind. It is what it is at this point, and as with every other ad hoc obstacle thrown in our path, the voters have adjusted. We’ll be coming for you soon, Greg. The Chron has more.

UH-Hobby: Trump 50, Biden 45

Here’s a poll result that stands in contrast to the others we have seen lately.

President Donald Trump is leading Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by more than five points among likely voters in Texas, according to a poll released Monday by the Hobby School for Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

The poll, conducted between Oct. 13 and Oct. 20, found 50% of voters said they already had or will vote for Trump, while 44.7% said they had or will vote for Biden.

Trump and running mate Mike Pence carried Texas by nine points in 2016.

The Republican edge held for statewide contests down the ballot, including for U.S. Senate, Texas Railroad Commission and three statewide judicial races covered by the poll.

“Record turnout in early voting clearly shows the state’s Democrats are energized, but at least at the top of the ticket, that enthusiasm appears unlikely to overcome the Republican advantage among men, Anglos and older voters,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School. “In fact, we found the Republican candidate leading by wider margins in statewide races farther down the ballot.”

Among the findings:

  • More than 40% had already voted at the time of the poll. Biden held a substantial edge among those voters, leading Trump 59% to 39%. Almost two-thirds of those who plan to vote on Election Day said they will vote for Trump.
  • Incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn leads Democratic challenger MJ Hegar 48.9% to 41.6%.
  • Republican Jim Wright is leading in the race for an open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, with 46.8% of the vote; Democrat Chrysta Castañeda has 38.4%.
  • Biden holds a slight edge among women, 49.5% to 46%. Trump is preferred among men by a notably larger margin, 54.3% to 39.5%.
  • While 63% of Anglos support Trump, and 87% of African-American voters back Biden, the gap is narrower among Latino voters: 56% support Biden, and 38% back Trump.
  • Republican Nathan Hecht leads Democrat Amy Clark Meachum 47.5% to 40% for Texas Supreme Court chief justice. For Supreme Court Justice Place 6, Republican Jane Bland leads Democrat Kathy Cheng 49.2% to 40.1%.
  • Republican Bert Richardson leads Democrat Elizabeth Davis Frizell 48.2% to 38.3% for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 3.

The full report is available on the Hobby School website.

The Hobby School did a primary poll in February and one Trump-Clinton poll around this time in 2016; they also did a couple of polls of Harris County in 2016. As noted in their introduction, this was a YouGov poll, so similar in nature to the UT/Texas Tribune polls. As I alluded to in the headline, this is the first poll we’ve had in awhile that was this positive for Trump, and it especially stands in contrast with that UT-Tyler poll that came out over the weekend. What does one make of this?

You can peruse the poll data as you wish. I’m going to note one thing that really stood out to me. The following is a list of how Independent voters went in each of the last nine polls over the past month for which that data was available (in other words, skipping the Morning Consult polls). See if you can see what I saw:


Poll      Biden   Trump
=======================
UH-Hobby     34      51
UTT/DMN      51      29
Q'piac Oct   50      39
DFP          40      36
PPP          60      35
UT-Trib      45      37
UML          43      39
NYT/Siena    41      37
Q'piac Sep   51      43

Yeah, that’s a very different result for independent voters than for basically every other poll we’ve seen. Note that the UT-Trib poll had Trump up by five, as did the Quinnipiac poll from September (both were 50-45 for Trump, in fact), and that UMass-Lowell poll had Trump up 49-46. As the song goes, one of these things is not like the others.

There are other things that can be said about this poll – I appreciate the “who has voted” versus “who has yet to vote” distinction, and I appreciate the inclusion of downballot races though I tend to discount those results because of the increase in “don’t know” responses – but this is the main thing I wanted to cover.

Links to the cited polls, and their data or crosstabs page where the numbers I included can be found:

UT-Tyler/DMNdata
Quinnipiacdata
Data for Progressdata
PPPdata
UT-Trib (data about indies in quoted excerpt)
UMass-Lowelldata
NYT/Sienadata
Quinnipiacdata

I will also note that Jim Henson and Joshua Blank have observed a shift in independents’ preferences in Texas towards indies this cycle. And now I will stop beating this horse.

SCOTX reinstates Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff location limit

They can move fast when they want to, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial order to limit Texas counties to one mail-ballot drop-off site was allowed to remain in effect Saturday by the Texas Supreme Court.

The court blocked a previous appellate court ruling that had briefly struck down Abbott’s order, which was widely decried by voting rights groups as a voter-suppression tactic. The lawsuit to overturn Abbott’s order is still pending.

In Harris County, more than 1 million voters have cast ballots during early voting, shattering previous records. Multiple drop-off sites had been set up for voters until Abbott issued his order, which he said would “stop attempts at illegal voting.”

State District Judge Tim Sulak had previously ruled that Abbott’s order would “needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections” and undermine the constitutionally protected rights of residents to vote, “as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”

Less than 24 hours after the Third Court of Appeals reinstated the district court ruling that had halted Abbott’s order. Clearly, SCOTX does not have a “we close at 5” mentality. It should be noted that this is not the end of the line. From the Statesman:

Acting soon after receiving an emergency appeal on Gov. Greg Abbott’s behalf, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order Saturday that temporarily barred counties from opening more than one drop-off site for mail-in ballots.

The court order keeps in place Abbott’s 3½-week-old proclamation that barred multiple drop-off locations that had opened in several counties, including Travis County, until the Supreme Court can determine the legality of Abbott’s limit.

With an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 3 election, the court also set tight deadlines, requiring legal briefs in the case to be filed before 5 p.m. Monday.

A ruling could come as soon as Monday night, though the Supreme Court gave no indication when it might act.

In theory, SCOTX could issue a ruling on the appeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we could get a few days of having multiple dropoff locations if the lower court order is upheld. Not great, but better than nothing. I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim, but it’s possible, and this is the best case scenario. At least you know what to hope for.

In practical terms, this means very little at this point. Very few people had ever used mail ballot dropoffs before. Existing law only allows for them to be used on Election Day – Abbott’s executive order extended that to all of early voting, which is an improvement even if his subsequent order limits it to a significant degree. Voting by mail is limited to begin with, and the vast majority of that small universe mailed their ballots in. Allowing people to drop them off at one of twelve locations instead of just one was an innovation, one of many that County Clerk Chris Hollins pioneered, and it was a welcome one in this year of COVID chaos, but losing it is more of an inconvenience than an impediment.

All that said, there is zero justification for Abbott’s order. People who wanted to drop off their mail ballots still had to go to an official County Clerk location, hand their ballot to an election judge, and show ID to have their ballot accepted. Fears of “fraud” and professions of “protecting election integrity” are empty shibboleths, the “thoughts and prayers” of vote suppression. Abbott imposed this limit as a sop to the extremists in his party who were already mad at him for adding an extra week to early voting. Hollins’ innovation made voting easier and more convenient. Abbott’s order made it harder and less convenient. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve said this before, but I firmly believe that a large majority of people like easier and more convenient voting, and support efforts to make it happen. There are lots of things the Democrats should un on in 2022. To me, this needs to be one of the big criticisms of Abbott – and Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton, and every single member of the Supreme Court – in that election. Being on the side of “easier and more convenient” is the side to be on.

Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

SCOTX rejects challenges to drive-through voting

Halle-fricking-lujah.

Voters in the state’s most populous county can continue casting their ballots for the fall election at 10 drive-thru polling places after the Texas Supreme Court Thursday rejected a last-minute challenge by the Texas and Harris County Republican parties, one of many lawsuits in an election season ripe with litigation over voting access.

The court rejected the challenge without an order or opinion, though Justice John Devine dissented from the decision.

[…]

Though the program was publicized for months before the ongoing election, it was not until hours before early voting started last week that the Texas Republican Party and a voter challenged the move in a state appeals court, arguing that drive-thru votes would be illegal. They claimed drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore should only be available for disabled voters.

Curbside voting, a long-available option under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The lawsuit also asked the court to further restrict curbside voting by requiring that voters first fill out applications citing a disability. Such applications are required for mail-in ballots, but voting rights advocates and the Harris County Clerk said they have never been a part of curbside voting.

The Harris County clerk argued its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore available to all voters. The clerk’s filing to the Supreme Court also said the Texas secretary of state’s Office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for County Clerk Chris Hollins’ attempt to get the Secretary of State on record about this. The decision came down a couple of hours after County Judge Lina Hidalgo (among others) called on Greg Abbott to do the same. This would have been a monumental middle finger to the voters of Harris County, and an utter disgrace for the Supreme Court, had they upheld the Republican challenge. I don’t know what took them so long, but if they’re going to be slow about it, they’d better get it right, and this time they did. Exhale, everyone.

We shouldn’t leave this item without giving Hollins the victory lap he deserves:

There’s a bit more on Hollins’ Twitter feed. When he says that every county should do it like this, he’s absolutely right. You can see all the SCOTX denials here, and the Chron has more.

(Oh, and let’s please do remember this when John Devine is up for election next. The rest of the court may have done the right thing, but that guy has truly got to go.)

Hollins calls on Secretary of State to defend drive through voting

Good.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking assurance from Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs that her office is “committed to defending the votes” cast at the county’s drive-thru voting sites, the subject of two lawsuits currently before the state Supreme Court.

In a letter sent to Hughs Tuesday, Hollins cited prior support from state election officials, including Elections Director Keith Ingram, for the legality of drive-thru voting. He asked Hughs to confirm by noon Wednesday that the office stands by those statements.

By noon, Hollins had not received a response from Hughs, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

A spokesman for Hughs said the office had received Hollins’ letter, but he declined to say whether Hughs or anyone from her office planned to respond. He also did not say whether Hollins had accurately characterized the position of state elections officials on drive-thru voting.

[…]

In his letter to Hughs, Hollins wrote, “Your office has repeatedly expressed that drive-thru voting fit the definitions and requirements for a polling place provided in the Texas Election Code for both Early Voting and Election Day.” During a court proceeding, Hollins wrote, Ingram called drive-thru voting “a creative approach that is probably okay legally.”

Last Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a guidance letter in which he suggested Harris County’s use of curbside voting does not pass legal muster. He wrote that state law “makes no provision for polling places located outdoors, in parking lots, or in parking structures.” The state election code also does not allow “‘drive-thru’ voting centers at which any voter may cast a ballot from his or her vehicle regardless of physical condition,” Paxton wrote.

“Curbside voting is not, as some have asserted contrary to Texas law, an option for any and all voters who simply wish to vote from the comfort of their cars when they are physically able to enter the polling place,” Paxton wrote.

You can see a video call with Hollins about this here, his official statement here, and further coverage from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer here. The concern at this point is not just that the Supreme Court might put a halt to what Harris County has been doing, but that they might invalidate the 70K+ votes that have been cast by drive-through voting. The contempt for voters that this would display, at this super late hour, is breathtaking. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I don’t know what else to say.

I don’t know when the Supreme Court might rule on this facially ridiculous challenge, but I will note that not only was it filed after early voting had begun, it’s now been a week since it was filed with SCOTX. They’re taking their sweet time about this. I hope that means that they’re not willing to stick a knife in this, but all I have is hope. Again, what this writ represents is plain and simple contempt for voters. There’s no other principle here.

On a side note, we also have this:

That is of course in reference to this turd of a Fifth Circuit ruling, and it’s exactly what we’d expect from the Clerk’s office. Every other election administrator in this state should follow their example.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

And it’s off to SCOTX for the Republicans who want to stop drive-through voting

It was inevitable.

State and local Republicans have taken their challenge of drive-thru voting in Harris County to the Texas Supreme Court.

In separate petitions, the Texas and Harris County GOP are asking the state’s highest court to limit drive-thru voting, which Clerk Christopher Hollins opened this year at 10 sites and made available to all voters.

The GOP argues the new practice is a form of curbside voting, which only is allowed for people who are sick at the time, have a physical condition that requires personal assistance or are at risk of injured health if they venture inside a polling location.

[…]

“The aforementioned criteria for curbside voting is equally applicable to ballots by mail voting,” the petition said. “With respect to ballot by mail voting, the Texas Supreme Court has already held that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code, and therefore, is not a sufficient basis to permit a voter to validly vote by mail.”

The county argues its drive-thru sites are not a form of curbside voting. The 10 sites are contained within a parking garage or tent facilities, a quality attorneys argue satisfies the criteria to be polling sites in their own right.

“The basic requirement for polling places is that it’s in a building,” Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said. “We’re interpreting that as long as we have a permanent or temporary structure,” it’s OK.

Even if it were curbside voting, Ray argued, it is up to the voter to decide whether he or she has a disability. The county does not have the legal authority to question disability claims, he said.

It is not clear how the votes already cast at drive-thru sites would be handled if the Supreme Court were to side with the plaintiffs.

The state GOP’s petition asks for a ruling forcing Hollins to “reject any curbside voting efforts” that do not comply with its interpretation of the law.

See here and here for the background, and here for both of the plaintiffs’ petitions. I have no idea how quickly the Supreme Court might move on this, but we’ve had three full days of drive-through voting so far, and going by the daily report, thousands of people have used it. I can’t imagine any ruling for the plaintiffs that wouldn’t be deeply disruptive, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s not supposed to happen with court rulings close to an election. But like I’ve said, the Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, and all we can do is adjust when they do it. Stay tuned.

Petition to stop drive-through voting dismissed

That was quick.

Drive-thru and curbside voting programs in Harris County can continue after a state appeals court Wednesday quickly threw out a last-minute lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party challenging the county’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. The state GOP had filed suit Monday night asking the court to place limits on curbside voting and halt drive-thru voting.

The appellate judges said the party and a voter who filed the suit did so too late, and did not show how they specifically might be injured by the voting practices. The lawsuit was filed just hours before early voting polls opened and more than a month after the Harris County Clerk announced his plan for drive-thru voting.

“The election is currently in progress and the relators delayed filing this mandamus until over a month after learning of the actions of the Harris County Clerk’s Office,” the panel of three judges on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals wrote in their ruling dismissing the case.

A Texas Republican Party spokesperson said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court “to ensure that no illegal votes would be cast and counted in this election.” In an unrelated recent voting lawsuit, the state’s high court ruled against another voting challenge because it was filed too late, saying changes during an ongoing election could cause voter confusion.

See here for the background, and here for the 14th Court’s ruling. It should be noted that the court dismissed the petition “sua sponte”, which is the fancy Latin phrase for “on its own initiative”. In other words, the court didn’t ask for the defendants to submit a response – the petition didn’t meet the bar for having a claim to be decided. That’s a pretty strong statement.

A bit from the ruing makes it clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t just the timing. The first two issues the court addressed were the standing of the plaintiffs to bring this challenge:

To have standing under section 273.061, a party must demonstrate that it “possesses an interest in a conflict distinct from that of the general public, such that the defendant’s actions have caused the plaintiff some particular injury.” In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, orig. proceeding) (quoting Williams v. Lara, 52 S.W.3d 171, 178 (Tex. 2001)).The claimant must show a particularized injury beyond that of the general public. Id. “Our decisions have always required a plaintiff to allege some injury distinct from that sustained by the public at large.” Brown v. Todd, 53 S.W.3d 297, 302 (Tex. 2001). “No Texas court has ever recognized that a plaintiff’s status as a voter, without more, confers standing to challenge the lawfulness of governmental acts.” Id. For example, a voter lacks standing to seek the removal of an ineligible candidate from the ballot because the voter has no special interest. See, e.g., Clifton v. Walters, 308 S.W.3d 94, 99 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2010, pet. denied); Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).

Standing requires “a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court.” Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 154. Texas has adopted the federal courts’ standing doctrine to determine the constitutional jurisdiction of state courts. Id. To maintain standing, petitioners must show: (1) an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent”; (2) that the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s challenged actions; and (3) that it is “‘likely,’ as opposed to merely ‘speculative,’ and that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.’” Id. at 154–55 (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992)).

RELATORS’ FAILURE TO SHOW STANDING

Pichardo argues that he has standing to obtain mandamus relief under Election Code section 273.061 because, unless Hollins is compelled to enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting, Pichardo is at risk of having his vote canceled out by an ineligible vote. But that alleged harm is true of every member of the general public who is registered to vote. Pichardo lacks standing because he has not shown that he has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., Brown, 53 S.W.3d at 302; In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553; In re Pichardo, No. 14-20-00685-CV, 2020 WL 5950178, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 8, 2020, orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The Republican Party of Texas argues that Hollins’s alleged intent to not enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting will harm its mission and purpose of advancing limited government, lower taxes, less spending, and individual liberty and promoting compliance with state election statutes. The Republican Party of Texas lacks standing because it has not shown that it has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553. The Republican Party of Texas cites no authority that supports its standing argument.

In other words, neither the voter they dragged up to be a plaintiff, nor the Republican Party of Texas itself, can claim any injury that a court would recognize. Their complaint basically amounts to “but some people might vote in a way we don’t like”, and the court has no time for that. At least, this court had no time for it. I suppose SCOTX could do something different, but that’s always the risk. The fact that voting has in fact already started should also be a barrier to entry, but again, we’ll see.

Three minor points of note: One, the GOP was represented by our old buddy Andy Taylor – just search the archives for that name, and you’ll see why I’m laughing. Two, this ruling also cited the 2008 lawsuit brought by supporters of then-Sen. Kim Brimer in their attempt to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, before she successfully knocked Brimer out of the Senate. And three, based on that “In re Pichardo” footnote, this particular plaintiff has served that role for whichever Republican group is seeking to stop some form of voting in court before, during this cycle. Put that name on your watch list for the future, these guys get around. The Chron has more.

State GOP files suit to stop curbside voting in Harris County

Honesty, it feels like they’re just trolling now.

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs.

State election law has long allowed voters with medical conditions to vote curbside. After they arrive at a polling location, a ballot is brought outside to them in their vehicle by an election worker. In addition to urging qualified voters to use the curbside option this year, Harris County also opened designated “drive-thru” polling locations for all voters, where poll workers hand people a voting machine through their car window after checking their photo identification.

The state GOP’s lawsuit, filed in a state appeals court in Houston, seeks to halt the drive-thru voting program and limit curbside voting to those who have submitted sworn applications saying they qualify for it. Glenn Smith, a senior strategist with Progress Texas, said Tuesday he could find nothing in the law requiring an application to vote curbside. Texas election law instructs election officers to deliver an on-site curbside ballot if a voter is “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Unless stopped, each of these instances of illegal voting will cast a cloud over the results of the General Election,” the lawsuit states.

Chris Hollins, the Harris County Clerk, said the latest lawsuit is in line with the Republican Party “feverishly” using resources to limit people’s right to vote.

“This lawsuit is not only frivolous, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the differences between curbside voting — for voters with disabilities, including illness — and drive-thru voting, which is available for all voters who want to vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

[…]

The Republicans argue that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn’t enough under state election law to qualify for curbside voting. Their point is bolstered by a May ruling from the all-Republican state Supreme Court which said a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not a disability that qualifies Texans to vote by mail. But Texas law differentiates between mail-in ballots — which must be requested ahead of time through an application under strict qualifications, like a disability — and curbside voting, which is requested onsite.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has repeatedly said this year that those who have symptoms or signs of the new coronavirus should use curbside voting. The office has provided placards for county election officials to use at polling locations that urge curbside voting for sick people or those who can’t enter a polling place without the “likelihood of injuring your health.”

[…]

Voters must provide photo identification, then will be handed a portable voting machine in their car, according to the website. The clerk’s office notes drive-thru voting is open to all voters, as opposed to curbside voting which is applicable for those with a disability.

The lawsuit filed Monday says drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore can’t be available to all voters. The Republican Party also notes that election law states polling places must be located inside a building, and the county’s promotional video for drive-thru voting is in an outdoor parking lot.

I will admit that I have generally not distinguished between curbside and drive-through voting. I’d not given any thought to the difference, or even that there was a difference. I will point out here that this drive-through method was piloted for the primary runoffs, and formally announced as part of the county’s overall election plan in August. I will also note that Bexar County had announced their own plans for drive-though voting even earlier in August. This once again raises the question of “if you’re gonna sue about this, why is it taking you so long?”

The Chron has some more details.

In a petition filed late Monday in Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, the Texas Republican Party contended the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting, including drive-thru voting, to voters who are sick or disabled, or if voting inside the polling location “would create a likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Those provisions do not apply to the coronavirus pandemic, the party argued in its filing.

“Chris Hollins is telling all Harris County residents that they are eligible for curbside voting when he knows that is not the case,” the party said in a statement. “Any voter that does not qualify to vote curbside under narrow statutory language would be voting illegally if allowed to vote drive-through.”

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said county officials are comfortable with the legality of drive-thru voting because they do not consider it to be a form of curbside voting. The drive-thru locations, he noted, are all inside buildings, such as garages and temporary structures, which he said prevents them from being curbside under Texas law.

“We looked at this carefully before we decided to do it and feel that it’s within the boundaries of the law,” Ray said. “It’s disingenuous on their part to try to classify drive-thru as curbside, because that is not what we’re doing.”

This was filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, so I presume it’s a writ of mandamus. (I couldn’t find any filings when I searched the 14th Court website, but maybe I was just searching wrong.) I presume also that the 14th Court is under no obligation to issue a ruling in a timely manner – I’d say sitting on this one, then dismissing it as moot is the fate it deserves, but then I’m both petty and Not A Lawyer, so don’t pay too much attention to that. We all understand what this is about, and we all understand the motivation for it. The courts are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’ll go from there. Let’s not give this any more thought than that.

30 Day 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 1

Time once again to look at campaign finance reports. I don’t usually review the 30-day reports but this is a special year, and there’s a lot of money sloshing around, so let’s keep an eye on it. As before, I will split these into four parts. Part one will be statewide, SBOE, and State Senate, part two will be State House races from the Houston area, part three will be State House races from elsewhere in the state, and part four will be for Democratic incumbents that may be targeted. I’m not going to be doing every race of course, just the ones of interest. January reports for statewide candidates can be found here, January reports for various SBOE and State Senate races can be found here, and the July reports for the candidates in this post are here.

Chrysta Castaneda, RRC
Jim Wright, RRC

Amy Clark Meachum, Supreme Court, Chief Justice
Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Gisela Triana, Supreme Court, Place 8
Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

Kathy Cheng, Supreme Court, Place 6
Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

Staci Williams, Supreme Court, Place 7
Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

Rebecca Bell-Metereau, SBOE5
Lani Popp, SBOE5

Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Will Hickman, SBOE6

Marsha Webster, SBOE10
Tom Maynard, SBOE10

Susan Criss, SD11
Larry Taylor, SD11

Roland Gutierrez, SD19
Pete Flores, SD19


Candidate   Office    Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===========================================================
Castaneda      RRC   310,709   161,145   27,166     103,934
Wright         RRC   243,765   452,473   45,000     169,761

Meachum      SCOTX   103,704    27,920        0     200,072
Hecht        SCOTX   176,761   806,375        0     105,298

Triana       SCOTX    37,075    19,945        0     134,736
Busby        SCOTX   314,946   580,588        0     342,010

Cheng        SCOTX    17,901     5,196   90,174      80,371
Bland        SCOTX   167,487   490,849        0     132,174

Williams     SCOTX   127,667    69,733    1,000      78,572
Boyd         SCOTX   128,500   168,373        0     466,196

BellMetereau SBOE5    63,473    18,316    2,250      66,834
Popp         SBOE5    64,012    22,713   60,000      50,637

Palmer       SBOE6    17,395     8,251        0      12,982
Hickman      SBOE6     2,660       819    2,500       2,887

Webster     SBOE10     4,195     3,200       25       4,523
Maynard     SBOE10     4,332    14,797    4,000         848

Criss         SD11    18,137    29,403        0       5,048
Taylor        SD11    47,775   138,166        0   1,054,841

Gutierrez     SD19   199,270    50,785        0      11,309
Flores        SD19   627,919   531,779        0     606,589

I didn’t have a whole lot to say about these reports last time, and I don’t have much to add now. Chrysta Castaneda raised a few bucks and has done a bit of TV advertising, but there’s not a whole lot you can do statewide with less than a million bucks as an opening bid. She has done well with earned media, and I think Democrats may be more aware of this race than they usually are, which could have an effect on the margins if it keeps the third-party vote level low. To be sure, the Presidential race is by far the single biggest factor here. The hope is that Castaneda can outpace Biden, even by a little, and if so then she just needs it to be close at the top.

The same is true for the Supreme Court, where Dems at least are fired up by the rulings relating to mail ballots. I think the potential for crossovers is lower than in the RRC race, where Jim Wright is so obviously conflicted, but just retaining a sufficient portion of the Presidential vote would mean a lot. I know people like to talk about the lack of straight ticket voting, but 1) these races are all near the top of the ballot, following the three federal contests, and 2) the message about voting out Republicans at all levels has been pounded all over the place. How much will it matter? I have no idea. All this may be little more than a social media mirage. It’s just what I’ve observed.

I am a little surprised that Roland Gutierrez hasn’t raised more money, and it’s equally odd to me that Pete Flores has outspent him by that much. But like everywhere else, the top of the ticket will drive this result more than anything else. In the context of 2016, this was basically a 10-12 point Dem district. Flores has to convince a lot of people to cross over in order to win. That’s the challenge he faces.

More of these to come. Let me know what you think.

Endorsement watch: Judicial races

The Chron endorses two Dem challengers and one Republican incumbent for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Tina Clinton

A court’s legitimacy derives in part from its capacity to inspire trust in the minds of those who live by its rulings. “There cannot be a trust among the African American community that the system is fair when the judges dispensing that justice are all represented by just one group,” Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County district court judge whom we recommend for Place 4, said last month at a virtual forum organized by the Innocence Project of Texas. She was noting that there are currently no Black justices on the court, and just one of nine members is Latino.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also true that in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals, diversity must also include a broader range of ideological perspective and of life experience. That’s because how a judge sees the law — and how he or she applies it to a particular case — is far more complex than sound bites about “activist judges” or labels such as conservative and liberal.

[…]

Place 4, Tina Yoo Clinton (D)
Tina Yoo Clinton, 50, has more than 14 years experience as a judge and 10 more as a prosecutor. She brings a combination of a veteran judge’s experience and the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of a newcomer. It’s exactly the mix the court needs.

For that reason, we recommend her over Justice Kevin Yeary, who has been on the court since 2014.

“Clearly when you look at what is going on in the United States within the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that even though we want justice to be colorblind, it is not colorblind,” Clinton said during last month’s candidate forum.

That’s a starting point that will help shape the discussions among the nine justices in ways that keep fairness at the center of the debate. Matched with her long experience and commitment to follow the law, we believe she will help render justice in which all Texans can have faith.

Place 9, Brandon Birmingham (D)
We recommend voters elect Dallas County criminal district court Judge Brandon Birmingham, 43, in Place 9, even at the high cost of losing Justice David Newell, whose voice on questions of actual innocence has been reasoned and refreshing.

But he adheres to the court’s overall emphasis on textualism, and approaches each case within a narrower view of what justice requires than would his opponent. The court’s nine members urgently need new perspectives, new sets of life experiences, and new vantage points from which to see the law and the facts in order to render decisions that have credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

Birmingham would stretch the boundaries of that debate — and would do so using experience as a judge, a prosecutor and a change agent.

They also endorsed Justice Bert Richardson, who I will agree is a good judge, over challenger Elizabeth Frizell. At least here, the Chron did more than just nod in the direction of increasing the diversity of this court, as they did with the Supreme Court.

In the other judicial races, the Chron endorsed all four Republican incumbents on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, and five Dems and five Republicans (plus one abstention) for the district courts. I’m just going to say this: If there’s one thing we should take away from the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett experiences, it’s that the judiciary is to Republicans (with a huge push from the professional conservative movement) nothing but an expression of political power. Gorsuch was given, and Barrett almost certainly will be given, a lifetime tenure on the US Supreme Court, where they will consistently rule in favor of Republican and conservative positions, because the Republican-held Senate had the power to block Garland and install the other two.

Here in Texas, where we elect judges as part of the regular electoral process, there has been a call to move away from partisan elections of judges and towards some other, as yet undefined system, which may involve appointments or bipartisan panels or who knows what else. This push has emerged and grown as Democrats have begun to assert more political power in Texas – I’ve been documenting it since 2008, when we elected Democratic judges for the first time since the early nineties. What the voters want is more Democratic judges, and so it has become Very Important for the Republicans that still retain full power in this state to make sure they don’t get them.

As a matter of abstract principle, I would agree that we could do a better job picking judges than the current system we have, where judges are voted on by people who mostly have no idea who they are and what they do. I’m sure if we put a few sober and learned types in a room for a few hours, they would emerge with a perfectly fine system for selecting judges on pure merit. But we’ve had this imperfect system for a long time, and when it benefitted the Republicans it was just fine. It certainly benefits them right now, when questions about voting rights are being litigated. If more Democratic judges get elected this cycle, I consider that just to be some balance on the scales. When we get to a point of having solid Democratic majorities on the Supreme Court and the CCA, and there’s a Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then come back with a fully-formed plan for non-partisan meritocratic judicial selections, and we can talk. Until then, I say elect more Democrats, including and especially Democratic judges. Politics has been a key part of this process from the beginning. The fact that the politics are slowly starting to favor the Democrats is not a compelling reason to change that. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Endorsement watch: For (just a little) more diversity

The Chron says a few words about the need to diversify the Supreme Court, then mostly endorses the status quo.

Judge Staci Williams

When talk turns to Texas’ highest civil court — as it must, given voters’ opportunity to select four of the nine justices in the upcoming election — the old frames of left versus right take on entirely new and even hazy meanings.

As an editorial board, we’ve grappled with the consequences of one-party rule in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 26 years. But those concerns are even more relevant when the topic is the Texas Supreme Court, and its criminal law counterpart, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

All 18 justices on these two courts are Republican, and we believe that lack of ideological diversity would do damage to any state, but especially one as big and diverse as Texas. That concern weighed heavy on our minds but still was only one factor in deliberations over which candidates to recommend.

We’re delighted to report that not one of the candidates was unqualified. We faced tough choices in selecting only one for each race. In addition to experience, judicial record, temperament and aptitudes for research, writing and analysis that form the heart of appellate law, we also gave thoughtful consideration to candidates’ ideological and personal backgrounds, including gender, race, ethnicity and life experiences.

What follows is our best advice in each of these four, consequential races. Endorsements in the Court of Criminal Appeals will be published soon.

And then they endorse three of the four Republican incumbents – Chief Justice Nathan Hecht over Judge Amy Clark Meachum, Justice Jane Bland over Kathy Cheng, Justice Brett Busby over Justice Gisela Triana; Judge Staci Williams over Justice Jeff Boyd was the lone exception – with nods to experience and temperament over the other factors. It’s fine to prefer those three incumbents and to value their experience, though I at least would argue that Triana has at least as much experience as the Abbott-appointed Busby, but the expressed concern over “lack of ideological diversity” sounds hollow given the result. The Justices in question may well be sober and experienced and learned, but I doubt anyone would claim they differ in any significant way on their philosophy and jurisprudence. Endorsing more of the same is not a great way to get something different. We’ll see what happens when they review the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

SCOTX hears mail ballot case arguments

Here we are.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county far exceeds what the state Election Code allows, the attorney general’s office argued before the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday.

In oral arguments before the high court, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the part of the Election Code requiring clerks to send applications to any registered voters who request them means the distribution of applications is limited to those voters. Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins, he warned, cannot claim powers the Election Code has not expressly granted him.

“If Hollins’s actions are allowed to proceed, it will fundamentally upset the balance of power between states and counties,” Hawkins said. “That conception of power has existed for a century.”

[…]

Susan Hays, a private attorney representing Harris County, said the purpose of the Election Code is to make voting safe and accessible to all registered Texans. Requiring applications to be sent to voters who request them is a minimum requirement, she argued, not a limit.

“A statute that says we have to give an application to someone if they ask doesn’t prohibit implicitly giving it to people because we think it’s a good management practice and we think it will make this election safe,” Hays said.

The eight justices in attendance peppered both attorneys with questions during their 20-minute arguments.

Responding to a question about whether the county’s plan would be out of step with how other parts of the state are handling mail ballots, Hays said all 254 counties should send mail ballot applications to registered voters. In an amicus brief, the Dallas County clerk argued the same.

Justice Eva Guzman asked Hays if Harris County’s plan would create more opportunities for voter fraud. Hays said it would not, noting that each ballot is reviewed by a bipartisan committee to ensure the signatures on the ballot and application match.

Justice Brett Busby asked Hawkins if the state’s position that clerks only have power explicitly granted by state law would bar them from developing new, innovative ways of providing services to customers.

“This is going to have ramifcations outside this case,” Busby said. “How do we tread that line to ensure clerks can continue to do, as they see it, good customer service?”

Hawkins said clerks would be fine so long as they are able to connect every action to a “specific grant of power” from the Legislature.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any new insights, I still think the state’s arguments are crap, but it’s not up to me. All I ask at this point is a quick decision.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

Hotze’s latest Supreme Court gambit

He has nothing else to do, clearly.

A litigious conservative activist in Houston, the Harris County Republican party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates are asking the Texas Supreme Court to limit in-person and absentee voting options for Harris County voters during the pandemic.

The county, the state’s most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, began letting voters drop off absentee ballots Monday for the Nov. 3 general election at 11 annexes. In line with a directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the county also intends to begin in-person early voting Oct. 13.

Prominent activist Steve Hotze, as well as Wendell Champion, a Republican candidate for Congress; Sharon Hemphill, a Republican candidate for judge; and the local GOP chair, are suing to stop that, arguing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is overreaching the bounds of state election law. They’re asking the state’s highest civil court to order Harris County to not begin early voting until Oct. 19 — the date set by state law that Abbott extended by executive order, citing safety concerns — and not accept absentee ballots delivered in person until Nov. 3.

[…]

The conservative plaintiffs also argue that state law does not allow Hollins to permit voters to drop off their ballots at the 11 sites, a strategy they claim “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud.”

According to the Harris County clerk’s website, voters who complete absentee ballots may drop them off at any of 11 locations during specified hours, including 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the early voting period and on Election Day. Voters can deliver only their own ballots in person, and when they do they must present identification.

As the story notes, this is in addition to the mandamus request to halt the extra week of early voting statewide. I have a hard time imagining even this Supreme Court thinking that the law supports halting the extra week in only one county. The use of County Clerk annexes and locations like NRG Arena as mail ballot dropoff locations has been discussed for weeks and weeks, so you have to wonder why this is just being filed now. (It may be because it wasn’t an issue that could be litigated before now – the legal system can be funny that way.) Hotze of course was also the first to try to stop the sending out of mail ballot applications, for which there should be a SCOTX hearing on Wednesday. The other stuff, I have no idea. There’s nothing to indicate any action from SCOTX on the mandamus to halt the extra week of early voting, but I suppose that could happen out of the blue at any time between now and October 12, so who knows. Hotze is basically Pennywise without the makeup, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTX won’t join him down in the sewer.

Hotze and crew appeal to SCOTX to stop the extra week of early voting

Here we go again.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a lawsuit over his extension of early voting for the November election from prominent members of his own party — including state party Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and members of the Texas Legislature.

In July, Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, Abbott’s intra-party critics say the move defied election law that requires early voting to start on the 17th day before the election.

It is the latest legal challenge to Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded aggressively in dealing with the pandemic.

“Governor Abbott seems to have forgotten that the Texas Constitution is not a document that he consults at his convenience,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is an uninterrupted charter of governmental structure that limits the Governor Abbott’s ability to act as a king.”

The plaintiffs argue Abbott needs to consult the Legislature before making such decisions and that “if ever a special session was justified, now is the time.”

One of the plaintiffs is Steve Hotze, the Houston conservative activist who has launched several lawsuits against Abbott’s coronavirus response that has seen minimal success so far. But in the latest lawsuit, he is joined by not only West and Miller, but also three state senators and four state representatives, as well as the chairman of the Harris County party, Keith Nielsen, and the Republican National Committeeman from Texas, Robin Armstrong.

West, who took over the state party this summer, has openly expressed disagreement with aspects of Abbott’s coronavirus handling, including his statewide mask mandate and the early voting extension. West seemed to telegraph the lawsuit Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would be partnering with Hotze to make election integrity a “top priority.” West said in the same statement that he opposes the “extension of early voting through the decree of a single executive instead of through the legislative process.”

[…]

In addition to making the early voting period longer for the November election, Abbott gave voters more time to turn in their mail-in ballots in person if they choose to do so. Usually those voters are permitted to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s expanded that option to the entire early voting period.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday additionally seeks to stop the extended period for submitting mail ballots in person, also calling the move inconsistent with the election code.

Before we go on, I should note that what was filed was not a lawsuit but a writ of mandamus. Hotze and a smaller crew of jackals had already filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court about a month ago. I presume this writ was filed because they weren’t going to get a ruling in time, and everything is an emergency as far as Hotze is concerned.

The Chron adds some detail.

In the 40-page petition filed Wednesday, the Republicans wrote that the extension was unlawful because the Texas Election Code defines the early voting periods as “the 17th day before election day … through the fourth day before election day,” and the time for in-person submission of mail-in ballots as “only while the polls are open on election day.” The petition seeks to force Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to stick to the timelines in the law.

Hotze has filed a number of lawsuits aimed at Abbott’s COVID-19 emergency orders; in the early voting suit, he again alleges that Abbott does not have the authority, even during a disaster, to suspend laws through executive order. Instead, he says, Abbott should have convened the Legislature.

“If ever a special session was justified, now is the time,” the petition states. “Abbott’s Executive Orders are unprecedented and have had life and death implications, destroyed small businesses and family’s livelihoods, have had a crippling effect on every single community, and now have the ability to impact local, state and national elections. As long as this Court allows it to occur, one person will continue to unilaterally make these decisions under the guise of an unconstitutional statute.”

The lawmakers involved in the suit are state Sens. Charles Perry, Donna Campbell and Pat Fallon and state Reps. Bill Zedler, Cecil Bell, Jr., Steve Toth and Dan Flynn. Additional relators include former state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Rick Green and Molly White; Harris County Republican Party Chair Keith Nielson; and several other candidates and Republican group leaders.

This story notes the earlier lawsuit. Of interest is the larger group of legislators that have joined in, which distinguishes this action from earlier Hotze/Woodfill joints. Perhaps the election of Allen West, who is as bananas as Hotze, has lent an imprimatur of establishment approval to this kind of rogue action. That said, this is the Hotze clown car we’re talking about, so of course there’s some unintentional comedy involved:

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

Anyway. You know my opinion on all this – there are some legitimate questions buried under the mountains of palaver, but they are being asked by the worst possible people. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the very nature of our biennial legislature, which is not paid as an occupation but as a temp gig, makes this claim about calling special sessions impossible. It’s just not something that the system is designed to accommodate. My guess is that SCOTX will give this the same reception as they’ve given all of Hotze’s other writs and motions during the COVID times, but you just never know. And I can’t wait to see how Ken Paxton responds to this.

On a side note, this comes as Steve Toth, yet another froth-at-the-mouth type, officially announced that he is unfriending Abbott, which by itself isn’t that interesting but lends some fuel to the speculation that Abbott is going to get a challenger from the far wingnut right in 2022. All I can say to that is that we damn well better have a good candidate ready and waiting for whoever survives that mud fight.

A matter of timing

That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.

The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.

[…]

Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.

“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”

[…]

In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.

Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.

First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.

The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.

We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.

I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).

Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.

The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.

Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.

As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

The Green Party owes Ken Paxton a thank-you note

He did them a solid, that’s for sure.

Turns out it is easy being Green

In the legal fight to exclude minor party candidates from the November ballot, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton took a flexible view of time and deadlines.

After the Texas GOP filed suit Aug. 21 to remove 44 Libertarians from the ballot for failure to pay a required candidate filing fee, Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court that there was plenty of time to pursue the challenge.

This week, however, Paxton told the same court that a Democratic bid to oust three Green Party candidates — filed four days before the unsuccessful GOP challenge — was begun much too late and needed to be overturned.

“The (Democrats’) dilatory conduct and unjustified delay in seeking relief imposed an undue burden on the Green Party officials,” Paxton told the court in a brief filed Monday.

[…]

[F]acing an Aug. 21 deadline to declare candidates ineligible, Democrats sued Aug. 17 to strike three Greens running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Railroad Commission.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals gave the Greens less than 48 hours to respond, then issued an Aug. 19 order declaring the three Green Party candidates ineligible for failure to pay the filing fee. The 2-1 ruling had two Democrats in the majority and one Republican dissenting.

The ruling drew the notice of Republican Party leaders, who quickly demanded that Libertarian leaders drop a long list of candidates for the same reason.

When those demands were rejected, Republican organizations and candidates asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to follow the precedent set in the Democratic challenge and order the Libertarians removed from the ballot.

But the GOP filed its challenge on Aug. 21, the deadline to declare candidates ineligible, and the appeals court tossed it out, ruling that there wasn’t time to hear from all parties and gather the necessary information before the deadline expired.

The GOP turned to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that instead of challenging candidate eligibility under an expired deadline, it was challenging the Libertarians’ candidate applications as improper — giving them until Sept. 18 to seek court intervention.

Paxton, in a letter brief to the Supreme Court, agreed with the GOP interpretation of state election law.

“Under Texas law, there is still time for this Court to compel compliance,” Paxton told the court on Sept. 4.

The all-Republican Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Sept. 5 that the GOP and Paxton were looking at the wrong section of the Election Code on deadlines. The court concluded that the Libertarians could not be removed from the ballot because the GOP challenge was filed too late.

[…]

Then on Friday, the Green Party asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its three candidates, arguing that like the GOP, the Democrats relied on the wrong part of the Election Code, rendering their challenge void as well.

The court asked Paxton’s office for its opinion.

In Monday’s response, filed 10 days after arguing that the GOP had not acted too late in challenging Libertarian opponents, Paxton urged the court to reinstate the Green candidates because the Democrats waited too long to act and because the 3rd Court of Appeals engaged in a rushed process that didn’t give the Greens, other political parties and other candidates time to weigh in.

“The 3rd Court abused its discretion,” Paxton wrote.

The Supreme Court’s one-paragraph order to reinstate the Green candidates did not explain the court’s rationale.

See here for the background. We expect SCOTX to publish its opinion on this ruling today, so we may get some idea if it’s all a bunch of sophistry or if they can make a principled argument that the Greens were deprived of their right to respond to the Dems’ legal action in a timely manner, which was a part of the ruling against the GOP in the Libertarian purge attempt. That Ken Paxton was willing to be morally and conveniently flexible on the subject should come as no surprise, given everything we know about him and his character. The Republican Party of Texas has a longstanding willingness to help the Greens whenever they think it might benefit them. This time that support came from an elected official instead of a deep-pocketed donor. Whatever works.

There was a debate in the comments of the last post about ranked choice voting (RCV) being a solution to this kind of legal gamesmanship. The theory is that since the people who voted Green or Libertarian (or independent, or whatever else may have been on the ballot) would still be able to express their electoral support for whichever major party candidate they like as their backup selection, which in turn would reduce the incentive for the major parties to bump them off the ballot. The logic has merit, though the lack of RCV around the country means there’s no data to test that hypothesis.

In this case, the argument that had been made by both the Ds and the Rs is that the other parties’ candidates had violated the law by not paying the newly-mandated filing fees – you may note, the Dems did not challenge the three Greens who did pay their filing fees, just the three candidates who had not – and there is a long history of candidates being challenged because they failed to meet eligibility requirements. If the filing fee law continues to survive the lawsuits against it, and there are Greens and Libertarians who refuse to comply with it in 2022, I would fully expect them to be taken to court again, surely in a more expeditious fashion, and I would expect that even in an RCV-enabled world. This is a basic tool in the political toolbox, one that I would not expect to go away if the method of determining the winner of an election changes. That too is a testable question, and perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for it. For now, that’s how I see it.

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

SCOTX puts Greens back on the ballot

That sound you hear is my head spinning.

The Texas Supreme Court has ordered three Green Party candidates to be restored to the November ballot after Democrats successfully sued to remove them.

Last month, a state appeals court sided with the Democrats, who were seeking to kick the candidates off the ballot because they had not paid filing fees. The three candidates are David Collins for U.S. Senate, Katija “Kat” Gruene for Railroad Commission and Tom Wakely for the 21st Congressional District.

The Texas Green Party appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that the secretary of state “shall immediately take all necessary actions to ensure these candidates appear on the” November ballot. The Supreme Court did not give its rationale, but said a full opinion was forthcoming.

It is the latest development in a spate of legal battles over third parties on the November ballot. At issue is a new requirement that third parties pay filing fees like Democrats and Republicans do. The law, passed last year by the Legislature, is the subject of multiple legal challenges, and many third-party candidates had not paid filing fees amid the pending litigation.

A state appeals court upheld the 2019 law last week.

While the Democrats were initially successful in booting the three Green Party candidates off the ballot, Republicans more recently failed in their bid to remove 44 Libertarians from the ticket for a similar reason. In rejecting the GOP effort earlier this month, the Supreme Court said the party waited too long to raise the issue.

[…]

It is crunch time for finalizing ballots across the state, with a Saturday deadline for counties to mail overseas and military ballots. The state’s most populous county, Harris County, wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday saying that “it is too late to make changes,” even if the court acted that day.

In an email sent to county election officials shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas secretary of state indicated that counties that had already sent out mail ballots would need to send a corrected version “as soon as possible.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling and ballot change will not be an acceptable excuse for missing the [Sept. 19] deadline,” wrote Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections. “That deadline must still be met.”

State law requires corrected ballots to include both a written notice explaining the change and instructions to destroy “defective” ballots that have not yet been returned to a county. A defective ballot returned to the county will be counted if a corrected ballot is not returned in time.

See here and here for the background on the Dems’ effort to boot those three Green candidates, and see here and here for more on the Republicans’ failed effort to boot the Libertarians. A fourth Green candidate had withdrawn from the ballot before all this started because he had voted in the Democratic primary this year.

My first reaction on seeing this news was that it was awfully late in the game for further changes to the ballot. Looking at the case filings, the writ was filed by the Greens on September 11, the Dems had till the 14th to respond, and the ruling came down on the 15th. I’ll have an opinion on the ruling when it is available, but until then all I can do is shrug. It is what it is. You can read this Twitter thread, which began with the original rulings in the two cases, for some more context. The Chron has more.

SCOTX extends stay in Harris County vote by mail case

I was set to be super outraged about this, but as you will see it’s not quite as bad as it first looked.

The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, granting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request hours earlier for the high court to step in before a different order halting the mailout was set to expire.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send applications to each of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters would confuse voters and lead to potential fraud. A state district judge rejected that argument Friday, and Paxton swiftly appealed to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

The appellate court denied Paxton’s request for an order blocking the mailout, deciding instead to speed up the trial by ordering Hollins and Paxton to submit arguments by Wednesday afternoon. Under an agreement between the state and county offices, Hollins was barred from sending out mail ballot applications until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Paxton, who noted that the appeals court “offered no assurance” it would issue a ruling by then, argued in a court filing Tuesday afternoon that the Texas Supreme Court should prevent Hollins from sending out applications once the clock strikes midnight Thursday morning. The court granted Paxton’s request, ordering Hollins not to send unsolicited applications “until further order of this court.”

The state Supreme Court already had blocked Hollins from mailing out applications to voters under 65 through a similar lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party and conservative activist Steven Hotze. However, Paxton noted, the court’s stay order will expire before the state and county agreement is up Wednesday evening.

Hollins was not immediately available for comment.

The clerk’s office already has mailed applications to voters who are 65 and older, all of whom are eligible to vote by mail under Texas law. The state election code also allows voters to cast mail ballots if they are disabled, imprisoned or out of their home county during the voting period.

Emphasis mine, and see here and here for the background. You can see the court’s order here, a statement from County Clerk Chris Hollins here, and the filings in the appeal to the 14th Court here. (You might also note that the three judges in the panel are all Dems, which may have influenced Paxton’s actions.) There should be a hearing today, and one presumes a fairly quick ruling, after which point this will go back to SCOTX and they’ll have to rule one way or the other on the actual case, not on what can happen while the case is being appealed. So as Samuel L. Jackson once said, hold onto your butts. The Trib and Reform Austin have more.

Now we wait on SCOTX

Shouldn’t have to wait too long to get a resolution to the “Harris County Clerk wanting to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters” question.

Chris Hollins

A day after a court ruled against him, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed on Saturday an order that allowed mail-in ballot applications to sent to all of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Paxton indicated in a press statement that he expects the court should rule by Monday.

“The proposed mass mailing would sow confusion because applications would go to all registered voters, regardless of whether they legally qualify to vote a mail ballot and regardless of whether they even want to vote by mail,” says a news release from Paxton’s office. “Texas law requires the clerk to send applications to voters who specifically request them.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Saturday that applications to voters under 65 are in production and will be sent out soon. His office has already sent out vote-by-mail applications to registered voters 65 and older.

“We’re disappointed that the attorney general is fighting so hard to keep information and resources out of the hands of Harris County voters, but, sadly, we aren’t at all surprised,” Hollins said. “The Harris County Clerk’s Office will continue to do everything we can to protect Texans’ right to vote, and we know that the law is on our side.”

See here for the background. Judge Sandill’s ruling very clearly addressed Paxton’s claims, so it’s really just a question of whether the Supremes want to put a thumb on the scale for Paxton or not. I keep coming back to their original ruling in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit, and I don’t know how you get to Paxton’s desired outcome without really warping the meaning of the existing law. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t do it, just that it should be clear what it would mean if they did. I don’t know what else to say.

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.

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.

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?

Libertarians will stay on the ballot

Sorry, Republicans. You were too late after all.

The Texas Supreme Court on Saturday rejected an attempt by Republicans to kick 44 Libertarians off the ballot in the November elections.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations had sued to remove the Libertarians, arguing they did not pay filing fees — a new requirement for third parties under a law passed by the Legislature last year. But the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, finding that the Republicans missed the August 21 deadline to successfully boot people from the ballot.

“The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility,” the court wrote in a per curiam opinion. “But the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed.”

[…]

“Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me quote from the intro to the opinion, which was released on the Saturday evening of a holiday weekend, to give you the basic gist of it.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations seek to prevent 44 Libertarian Party candidates from appearing on the 2020 general-election ballot due to the Libertarians’ failure to pay the filing fee required by section 141.041 of the Texas Election Code. The Republicans concede that the statutory deadline to have the Libertarians removed from the ballot using a declaration of ineligibility passed on August 21. See TEX. ELEC. CODE § 145.035. They claim a later deadline applies to their petition, which they describe as a challenge to the Libertarians’ ballot applications governed by the deadline in section 141.034.

For the reasons explained below, the Election Code does not authorize the requested relief. Because the Libertarian Party nominates candidates by convention rather than primary election, its candidates’ applications are governed by chapter 181 of the Election Code, not by chapter 141’s procedures for challenging ballot applications. See id. §§ 181.031–.034. The relators invoke deadlines governing challenges to “an application for a place on the ballot” under chapter 141, but Libertarian Party candidates do not file such applications. Instead, they file “an application for nomination by convention” under chapter 181, which is a statutorily separate type of application governed by a separate set of statutes. Id. The Election Code does not subject the Libertarian candidates’ applications for nomination by convention to the procedures and deadlines for ballot-application challenges on which the relators rely.

Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code. The Legislature established detailed rules for ballot access and for challenges to candidates, and courts must carefully apply these rules based on the statutory text chosen by the Legislature. The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility. However, the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed. The Election Code does not permit the relators to bypass that deadline by belatedly challenging the Libertarians’ applications. The petition for writ of mandamus is denied.

In other words, the novel attempt to say they are not challenging the candidates’ eligibility, which the Republicans conceded was too late, but were challenging their applications. The Supreme Court says that the law the Republicans were citing for this challenge doesn’t apply, and as such they’re out of luck. They did say in a footnote on page three that the Green Party could have sought Supreme Court review of that Third Court of Appeals order that forced their candidates off the ballot, and that an Attorney General amicus brief that took no position on that question was filed and considered for this case. They don’t seem to be saying how such a motion for review might have been received, just that it could have been done.

The bulk of the opinion is a tour through the part of the Election Code that governs parties that nominate their candidates by convention instead of by primary election, and how the Legislature treats the two kind of nominating processes differently. I gave it only a quick scan, because life is short and it is a holiday weekend, but feel free to dive in if that’s your jam. I will say, unless the Libertarians win one of their lawsuits challenging the new statute that mandates a filing fee, which was the basis for all of this legal wrangling, both Rs and Ds will be sure to do this again in 2022, since it is clear that they can knock Libertarians and Greens who don’t pay that fee off the ballot. The Ls and Gs may not like this law, but it’s in effect until further notice, and they know what the price of not following it is. And I have to imagine that somewhere, someone inside the Republican Party is getting reamed out by someone else for not being as on the ball about this as the Democrats were. They had a path to get what they wanted, they just didn’t take it in time. From where I sit, they were caught flat-footed and were out-lawyered by the Dems. That’s gotta sting a little for them.

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.