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Texas Civil Rights Project

State Bar finally files that professional misconduct lawsuit against Paxton

We’ve been eagerly awaiting this.

Best mugshot ever

A disciplinary committee for the State Bar of Texas on Wednesday filed a professional misconduct lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential elections in four battleground states won by President Joe Biden.

The filing in Collin County by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a standing committee of the state bar, is an extraordinary move by the body that regulates law licenses in the state against the sitting attorney general. It stems from complaints against Paxton for a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out, saying Texas lacked standing to sue and that Paxton’s political opponents called “frivolous.”

It seeks a sanction against Paxton, which will be determined by a judge, that could range from a private reprimand to disbarment.

In its filing, the commission said Paxton had misrepresented that he had uncovered substantial evidence that “raises serious doubts as to the integrity of the election process in the defendant states.”

“As a result of Respondent’s actions, Defendant States were required to expend time, money, and resources to respond to the misrepresentations and false statements contained in these pleadings and injunction requests even though they had previously certified their presidential electors based on the election results prior to the filing of Respondent’s pleadings,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit also says Paxton made “dishonest” representations that an “outcome determinative” number of votes were tied to unregistered voters, votes were switched by a glitch with voting machines, state actors had unconstitutionally revised their election statutes and “illegal votes” had been cast to affect the outcome of the election.

The lawsuit says Paxton’s allegations “were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the Court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law.”

The complaint asks for a finding of professional misconduct against Paxton, as well as attorney’s fees and “an appropriate sanction.”

[…]

The lawsuit against Paxton stems from multiple complaints filed by Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Wellington Chew, former chief justice of the Eighth District Court of Appeals; attorney Neil Kay Cohen; attorney Brynne VanHettinga; and Gershon “Gary” Ratner, the co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

See here, here, and here for some background; this post contains some technical details from the original complaint. As far as I can tell, this encompasses all of the 2020 election-related complaints against Paxton; there’s a separate complaint having to do with his threats against the Court of Criminal Appeals for not letting him prosecute “voter fraud” cases at his discretion, whose disposition is not known to me at this time. There’s also the complaint against Brent Webster, which will be litigated in Williamson County, and more recently a complaint against Ted Cruz that will presumably take some time to work its way through the system. That first 2020 election complaint against Paxton was filed last June, so it took nearly a year to get to this point. I have no idea if that’s a “normal” time span for this – I suspect nothing about this is “normal” anyway.

One more thing: I presume this was filed in Collin County because that’s where Paxton passed the bar, or some other technical reason like that. The Chron adds a bit of detail about that.

Under the state bar’s rules, disciplinary suits are filed in the county in which the attorney primarily practices. If there’s more than one, the bar files in the county where the attorney lives — Paxton indicated Collin County. Similarly, the suit against Webster was filed in his hometown of Williamson County. That determination is up to the subject of the suit, according to the rules.

Also per the bar’s rules, these suits are heard by an appointed judge from another district.

In Paxton’s case, it will be Judge Casey Blair of Kaufman County, a Republican elected in 2014. Webster’s case will be heard by Judge John Youngblood of Milam County, also a Republican who was first appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 and first elected in 2012.

Good to know. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

More State Bar disciplinary stuff

A new twist, as a new player enters the picture.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas State Bar has filed a suit in Williamson County district court against First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster for his involvement in the state’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, alleging Webster committed professional misconduct by making false and misleading statements in the petition.

A similar disciplinary suit is expected against Paxton, who reiterated Friday his contention that the group is targeting him because it disagrees with his politics. As of Friday afternoon, no suit had been filed.

Texas’ 2020 suit before the U.S. Supreme Court was almost immediately tossed, and Trump’s own Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome. The bar is treating the case as a frivolous lawsuit as it seeks sanctions including possible disbarment for the two public officials.

“I stand by this lawsuit completely,” Paxton said on Twitter. “I am certain that the bar will not only lose, but be fully exposed for what they are: a liberal activist group masquerading as a neutral professional association.”

Then-Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, the state’s chief litigator who resigned about a month after the election challenge was tossed, was notably absent from the filing, though Hawkins never explained why, raising questions about whether he supported the legal challenge. Solicitor generals are typically involved in all major appellate litigation.

[…]

The bar complaints against Paxton and Webster alleged that their petition to overturn the 2020 election was frivolous and unethical, and that it includes statements that they knew to be false. In Webster’s case, it is clear that the bar agrees.

“Respondent’s representations were dishonest,” the suit states. “His allegations were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law.”

The suit also alleges that Webster “misrepresented” that Texas had “uncovered substantial evidence,” raising doubts about the integrity of the election and had standing to sue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The four battleground states that Texas sued — Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — were then forced to have to spend time, money and other resources responding to these claims, it said.

The suit does not specify what type of punishment the bar recommends for Webster.

The suit against Webster was sparked by a March 2021 complaint by Brynne VanHettinga, an former member of the bar who described herself as a “citizen concerned about fascism and illegal overthrow of democracy.” VanHettinga could not be immediately reached Friday.

See here and here for some background. Looking at that Trib story that I based yesterday’s post on, I see it also includes a couple of paragraphs about the action against Brent Webster, who replaced Jeff Mateer after he was purged as a whistleblower against Paxton, and who co-authored the self-exoneration report from that saga. I was not aware of any State Bar complaints against Webster in this matter – the two against Paxton were filed after the VanHettinga complaint against Webster. A Google News search on VanHettinga’s name only yielded the Chron and Trib stories. You can see what a challenge it is to keep up with all this.

As for the Paxton piece of it, this is more of the story I blogged about yesterday. The main thing to learn, which the Trib story also noted, is that there hasn’t yet been a lawsuit filed against Paxton. It sounded like that would be filed in Travis County when it happens, but maybe this means it will happen in Williamson instead. Since it seems that the judge will be selected from the broader judicial administrative region, it’s not clear that where the trial itself is matters.

Paxton whines about the disciplinary process he selected

My head hurts.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s top lawyer, said Friday the state bar was suing him for professional misconduct related to his lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

“I have recently learned that the Texas State Bar — which has been waging a months-long witch-hunt against me — now plans to sue me and my top deputy for filing Texas v. Penn: the historic challenge to the unconstitutional 2020 presidential election joined by nearly half of all the states and over a hundred members of Congress,” Paxton said in a statement released on social media. “I stand by this lawsuit completely.”

A few hours after saying he was being sued by the bar, Paxton’s office announced an investigation into the Texas Bar Foundation for “facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens” by donating money to groups that “encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border.” The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Representatives for the Texas Bar Foundation could not immediately be reached for comment. Trey Apffel, executive director of the State Bar of Texas, said the bar and the foundation are privately funded and don’t receive taxpayer funds.

“The foundation is separately funded through charitable donations and governed by its own board of trustees,” Apffel said. “While we are unsure what donations are at issue here, we are confident that the foundation’s activities are in line with its mission of enhancing the rule of law and the system of justice in Texas.”

Paxton, an embattled Republican seeking a third term, said state bar investigators who now appear to be moving on a lawsuit against him are biased and said the decision to sue him, which comes a week before early voting in his GOP runoff for attorney general, was politically motivated. He is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the May 24 election.

“Texas Bar: I’ll see you and the leftists that control you in court,” he said. “I’ll never let you bully me, my staff or the Texans I represent into backing down or going soft on defending the Rule of Law — something for which you have little knowledge.”

In fact, the investigation into Paxton has been pending for months. Last July, a group of 16 lawyers that included four former state bar presidents filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including his decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The attorneys said the lawsuit was “frivolous” and had been filed without evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it, saying Texas had no standing to sue.

In March, the investigation moved ahead and Paxton was given 20 days to decide whether he wanted a trial by jury or an administrative hearing to resolve the complaint.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the state bar said the group had not been notified of a decision. Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers who filed the ethics complaint, said he also had not been notified of a trial but that Paxton would have received notification.

“I was as surprised as you were to see that tweet this morning,” Harrington said.

See here for some background. You may note that happened in early March, almost two months ago, which is considerably more than 20 days. I don’t know if time moves more slowly in this context or if there just wasn’t any mechanism to enforce the decision Paxton had to make. Whatever the case, he made it and now he’s fundraising off of it. At least that much is par for the course, at least for him. While this case will be heard in Travis County, the judge who oversees it will be selected from the Texas Judicial Branch’s administrative region, which is a fairly large area. I don’t know how any of that works, either – this whole thing is kind of a black box. But it’s moving along, which is more than we can say for some other messes involving Ken Paxton.

UPDATE: Via email, a statement from the Texas Bar Foundation:

“The Foundation is extremely disappointed to learn that AG Paxton has decided to use taxpayer dollars on a fruitless exercise. Had AG Paxton taken the time to come and speak with us rather than issue a press release, I am confident that he would have found no wrongdoing on the part of the Foundation. Nevertheless, the Foundation is happy to cooperate and provide the AG’s office with documents and information relevant to the investigation.

Thousands of Texans have had their lives changed because of grants received from the Texas Bar Foundation. General Paxton is misinformed. The Foundation does not receive funding from taxpayer dollars. To the contrary, our grants are made possible by the generosity of Texas lawyers. We receive voluntary contributions from the Fellows of the Foundation, and those contributions enable the Foundation to award millions of dollars in grants. We will proudly continue to award grants to much-needed charities throughout Texas going forward.”

There’s a story in today’s Chron that has more information than this Trib story. I’ll do a separate post on that.

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.

We have a final count of rejected mail ballots

About one in eight got canned. That’s a lot.

The votes of more than 24,000 Texans who tried to cast ballots by mail were thrown out in the March primary — a dramatic increase in rejected ballots in the first election held under a new Republican voting law.

Roughly 12.4% of mail-in ballots returned to the state’s 254 counties were not counted, according to figures released Wednesday by the Texas secretary of state. Just over 3 million people voted overall in the low-turnout primary.

Of 24,636 rejected mail-in ballots, 14,281 belonged to voters attempting to participate in the Democratic primary, and 10,355 belonged to voters in the Republican primary. But the rejection rate by party was fairly aligned; 12.9% of Democratic ballots were rejected and 11.8% of Republican ballots were rejected.

Put another way, 1 in every 8 mail-in voters lost their votes in their primary. The rate amounts to a significant surge in rejections compared with previous years, including the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election, when less than 1% of ballots were tossed.

Data previously collected by The Texas Tribune found rejection rates ranging from 6% to nearly 22% in 16 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters, which overall rejected 18,742 mail-in ballots. In most cases, county officials said, ballots were rejected for failing to meet new, stricter ID requirements enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail.

By contrast, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found less than 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected statewide in the 2018 midterm election. The statewide rejection rate in the 2020 presidential election was less than 1%. In the higher-turnout 2020 election, 8,304 ballots were tossed statewide. In the 2022 primary — for which turnout fell shy of 18% — roughly three times as many ballots were rejected.

The data released by the secretary of state is the most official measure of the fallout of the tighter restrictions on voting by mail, which have so far proven the most frustrating aspect of Republicans’ voting law in its first test.

See here for the previous update. A little back of the envelope math says there were about 200K total mail ballots submitted for the primaries. That suggests maybe 600-800K mail ballots for the general, and about 75-100K rejections if nothing changes. Like I said, that’s a lot. I will say again, we can do something about this to reduce that number, and for all the obvious reasons we need to make that a top priority. The May runoff will hopefully give us a progress report on that. I suppose now that we have actual real world data of this effect of SB1, it may help make the case against it in the litigation, as the harm is now real and not theoretical. We’ll know when we hear about updated filings. In the meantime, make a priority of educating everyone you know about the new requirements so that they can be prepared for the next time they vote.

Guess who’s paying for Ken Paxton’s defense against those state bar complaints?

You are, of course. What did you expect?

Best mugshot ever

Texas taxpayers are on the hook for $45,000 so far in legal defense for Attorney General Ken Paxton as he attempts to ward off multiple complaints to the State Bar over his failed lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paxton faces at least three professional misconduct complaints that have been filed against him since the December suit, which the high court swiftly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The election case involved disputed presidential election ballots in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Two complaints — one filed in June by a Democratic Party activist, consolidated with a few others, and another in July filed by the nonprofit Lawyers Defending American Democracy and 16 Texas lawyers, including four former presidents of the state Bar — alleged the Supreme Court suit was frivolous and that it included pleadings that Paxton knew to be false.

The Lawyers Defending American Democracy complaint is moving forward and will be heard by either a district court judge or an administrative panel, the complainants say.

“This is about his individual license, which is irrelevant to his position in office, so why shouldn’t he pay for it?” said Jim Harrington, one of the lawyers who filed a complaint against Paxton and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “He gets to do this game on Jan. 6, this unconstitutional Supreme Court action, and then turn around and have us pay twice for it? It’s outrageous.”

[…]

Attorneys with the Austin-based Gober Group and College Station-based West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry billed more than 94 hours at various rates for work related to the bar complaints. Chris Gober, a GOP election lawyer known for his work defending the state’s political maps, had the highest rate at $525 an hour.

Some of the work described in the invoices included reviewing documents related to the complaints, discussing strategy and considering options, preparing for meetings with the Texas State Bar and reviewing and revising correspondence with the agency.

However, a response to the June batch of bar complaints against Paxton, which the office posted on its website, was signed by Deputy First Assistant Attorney General Grant Dorfman; none of the outside attorneys’ names appear on the filing. It’s unclear why both in-house and outside counsel appear to have been engaged in Paxton’s defense.

Because there’s free money to give to Paxton’s pals. This has been another edition of “Simple Answers to Simple Questions”.

See here for the most recent update. There is of course a hypocrisy angle in all of this, because of course there is.

Steve Fischer, elected State Bar director for the Western District of Texas and one of the attorneys who filed the 2015 complaint, said taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the cost of Paxton’s defense.

“People elect an attorney general to do child support, whatever — not for that,” Fischer said. “To turn his office into his defense team, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”

According to a response to some of the latest complaints by the attorney general’s office in July, the State Bar Disciplinary Counsel received 81 grievances against Paxton and three against First Assistant Brent Webster related to the 2020 Supreme Court suit. All were dismissed upon initial review. Some were reinstated after appeals.

[…]

While the attorney general’s office’s role in fighting bar complaints may be a legal gray area, the agency is statutorily required to defend state officials and state agencies in court. Yet Paxton’s office has declined to represent those state agencies on several recent occasions, typically when it conflicts with his political inclinations.

In 2018, for example, his office refused to defend the Texas Ethics Commission as one of his largest political donors sues to dismantle the agency. Then again, in January 2020, the office abandoned the State Commission on Judicial Conduct when it was sued by a Waco judge whom the agency disciplined for refusing to perform same-sex marriages.

Paxton’s main complaint about the State Bar allowing this matter to proceed is that both the filing and the State Bar itself are motivated by partisan politics. Not him, though, of course. Never him.

You may think well, maybe we don’t want the government to pay for this government official’s defense because he’s so odious, but what happens when we elect a Democratic AG? Should Rochelle Garza or Joe Jaworski have to pay for their own defense against the avalanche of frivolous partisan complaints that will surely be filed against them? That would be bad, except that as the story notes the vast majority of the ones against Paxton got dismissed for lack of merit. I doubt it would be any different with a different AG. At least, it better not be. As long as it isn’t, and as long as the next AG has better ethical standards than Ken Paxton – an exceptionally low hurdle to clear – it shouldn’t be an issue.

First “Trump Train” lawsuit to proceed

Good news.

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Cervini v. Cisneros, the “Texas Trump Train” lawsuit filed against individuals in a convoy of Trump supporters who conspired to mount a coordinated vehicular assault against a Biden-Harris campaign bus on October 30, 2020. The court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case and allowed it to go forward on allegations that these individuals engaged in political violence that violated the federal Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas state law.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, Protect Democracy, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP filed the suit last year on behalf of four plaintiffs—bus driver Tim Holloway, politician Wendy Davis, historian Eric Cervini, and former Biden campaign staffer David Gins. Holloway, Davis, and Gins were on the Biden-Harris campaign bus, and Cervini was in an accompanying vehicle, when the bus was ambushed on I-35 between San Antonio and Austin on the last day of early voting in Texas.

For more than an hour, dozens of trucks and cars encircled the campaign bus, having coordinated to threaten, harass, and intimidate those aboard. They live-streamed their attempts to run the bus off the road, and one of their vehicles ultimately collided with a campaign vehicle. With today’s decision, the case against participants in this caravan who conspired to ambush the bus and its passengers will continue with discovery, and the plaintiffs will have a chance to prove their case at trial.

“Today the court reaffirmed that political violence has no place in our democracy,” said Tim Holloway, who was driving the Biden-Harris bus during the incident. “And though the threats and intimidation we experienced are haunting, at least there is hope that our harassers will be held accountable.”

“While we were peacefully exercising our right to campaign, we were ambushed by individuals engaged in a conspiracy to threaten us with violence,” added Eric Cervini. “With this ruling, the court recognizes that what we experienced that day was exactly the sort of political intimidation the Ku Klux Klan Act was designed to address.”

With today’s decision, plaintiffs can continue to seek a jury verdict declaring the incident a violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act. Congress passed the Reconstruction statute to protect free and fair federal elections from widespread Klan violence against Black and Republican voters by making it illegal for individuals to join together to intimidate and injure Americans participating peacefully in the political process.

“Today’s ruling reaffirms that violations of the Klan Act need not invoke racial or other class-based animus, or state action,” said John Paredes, counsel at Protect Democracy. “Anyone who conspires to intimidate or attack a political campaign in a federal election — regardless of their motivations — is guilty of a Klan Act violation.”

“Free and fair elections depend on voters — no matter their color, party, or zip code — being protected from the threat of violence. The attack on our clients on the Biden-Harris campaign bus is part of a troubling pattern of increasing political violence in the U.S. in recent years — culminating in the insurrection at Congress on January 6, 2021,” added Emma Hilbert, senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Today’s decision serves to reaffirm the freedom of political expression, and serves as a warning that justice awaits those who may conspire to terrorize or menace voters.”

More information about this case is available here and here.

See here and here for the background, and here for the court order. There were two lawsuits filed over this debacle, one against individual drivers of the “Trump Train”, and one against the San Marcos police department, which was quite the hot mess. The ruling here is for the first lawsuit, though it seems likely to me that it would apply for the second as well. I don’t know at this time when the trial is going to happen, but of course I’ll be keeping an eye on it. KVUE has more.

Still more on the mail ballot rejections

The Associated Press moves the ball forward now that the votes have been canvassed.

Texas threw out mail votes at an abnormally high rate during the nation’s first primary of 2022, rejecting nearly 23,000 ballots outright under tougher voting rules that are part of a broad campaign by Republicans to reshape American elections, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Roughly 13% of mail ballots returned in the March 1 primary were discarded and uncounted across 187 counties in Texas. While historical primary comparisons are lacking, the double-digit rejection rate would be far beyond what is typical in a general election, when experts say anything above 2% is usually cause for attention.

“My first reaction is ‘yikes,’” said Charles Stewart III, director of the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It says to me that there’s something seriously wrong with the way that the mail ballot policy is being administered.”

Republicans promised new layers of voting rules would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” But the final numbers recorded by AP lay bare the glaring gulf between that objective and the obstacles, frustration and tens of thousands of uncounted votes resulting from tighter restrictions and rushed implementation.

In Texas, a state former President Donald Trump easily won although by a smaller margin than 2016, the trouble of navigating new rules was felt in counties big and small, red and blue. But the rejection rate was higher in counties that lean Democratic (15.1%) than Republican (9.1%).

[…]

The AP counted 22,898 rejected ballots across Texas by contacting all 254 counties and obtaining final vote reconciliation reports. Some smaller counties did not provide data or respond to requests, but the 187 counties that provided full numbers to AP accounted for 85% of the 3 million people who voted in the primary.

Last week, AP reported that 27,000 ballots had been flagged in Texas for initial rejection, meaning those voters still had time to “fix” their ballot for several days after the primary and have it count. But the final figures suggest most voters did not.

The most rejections were around Houston, a Democratic stronghold, where Harris County elections officials reported that nearly 7,000 mail ballots — about 19% — were discarded. During the last midterm elections in 2018, Texas’ largest county only rejected 135 mail ballots. Harris County elections officials said they received more than 8,000 calls since January from voters seeking help, which they attributed to “confusion and frustration” over the new requirements.

In the five counties won by Trump that had the most mail-in primary voters, a combined 2,006 mailed ballots were rejected, a rate of 10% of the total. In the counties won by Biden with the most mail-in voters, which include most of Texas’ biggest cities, a combined 14,020 votes were similarly rejected, which amounted to 15.7%.

[…]

It is unknown how many Texas voters whose mail ballots were rejected may have still had their vote count by deciding to just show up in person instead.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, said the office did not yet have its own final comprehensive numbers on ballot rejections. He said a “significant portion” of their efforts this year will be awareness about the new mail-in rules.

“We are confident we will have all the information we need to apply any lessons learned during the primary to an even more robust voter education campaign heading into the November general election,” he said.

See here and here for the background. Saying that “the rejection rate was higher in counties that lean Democratic than Republican” is suggestive but not conclusive. We don’t know how many counties are included in that tally, how many of them were blue and how many red, how blue and how red they were, and most importantly how many ballots from each primary were rejected. Republican counties, especially the smaller ones, are a lot more red than Democratic counties are blue, though the Dem counties have a lot more voters in them. A lot of those Republican counties also have many more Republican primary voters than Democratic primary voters. We still need to have a total number of ballots rejected for each party to get a better idea of how this actually played out.

The Statesman adds on.

In the Austin-area counties, the overwhelming majority of the rejections were due to the law’s stricter ID requirement, which has caused confusion for voters since counties opened applications for absentee ballots earlier this year.

“It’s typical to see ballots rejected because they’re received after a statutory deadline — and we still had many ballots that were rejected for that reason — but the more prevalent cause in this case was ballots rejected for lack of the proper ID number, or ID issues,” said Chris Davis, elections administrator for Williamson County.

“It led to much higher numbers than we’ve ever seen, in terms of rejected ballots,” he said.

Mail-in ballot rejection rates in the primary election ranged from 7% to 11% in Austin-area counties, with more than 1,500 votes tossed out across Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties.

Those rates far exceed previous elections. In the 2018 primary, the rejection rate for mail-in ballots in Travis County was about 2%.

[…]

In Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, rejection rates ranged from 7% to 11% in the most recent election. The elections administrator in Hays County, Jennifer Doinoff, did not return multiple requests for information.

Official tallies for Travis County showed 948 absentee ballots were rejected out of 11,602 turned in to the county. Victoria Hinojosa, spokeswoman for the Travis County election administrator, said 72% of the rejected ballots were cast in the Democratic primary and 28% in the Republican primary.

Hinojosa said a majority of the rejected ballots were denied due to ID issues. Originally, at least 16% of absentee ballots received by the county were rejected, but Hinojosa said that number was cut in half as voters corrected ID errors after being notified by the county of the mistake.

The new election law requires counties to contact voters who made mistakes on their ballot to let them rectify problems before election day.

By comparison, Hinojosa said, in the 2018 primary 9,000 ballots were returned and about 2% were ultimately rejected.

In Williamson County, 11.6% of mail ballot voters had their ballots rejected. That rate was slightly higher among Republican voters (260 ballots out of 1,883 at a 13% rate) than Democratic voters (261 ballots out of 2,627 ballots at a 10% rate.)

Travis County had about 111K Democratic ballots overall, and about 48K GOP ballots. Which is to say about 70% of all ballots were Democratic, so if 72% of the mail ballots rejected were Democratic, that’s more or less in proportion.

Still, the basic outline is clear. This was a disaster, and it’s not at all a surprise that Greg Abbott et al have refused to comment on any of it. The one piece of good news is what I’ve been saying, that now that we know the scope of the problem we can work to overcome it. It’s going to take money and effort, and we shouldn’t have to do this, but we can. We really don’t have any choice. The Chron editorial board and Vox have more.

More data about mail ballot rejections

Keep it coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Talking Points Memo was also on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rejected mail ballots of Bexar County

I have four things to say about this.

Bexar County rejected mail-in ballots at roughly ten times the rate it did before the passage of the state’s new voting law last year.

Before Senate Bill 1 took effect, with its host of changes and restrictions to voting in Texas, roughly 2% to 3% of mail-in ballots were rejected in local elections, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the San Antonio Report.

In the March primary, as many as 22% have been rejected thus far, a figure she expects to increase once all the late, ineligible ballots are counted.

The county received a total of 18,336 mail-in ballots in the primary, and has had to reject 4,197 of them, most for “technical issues” associated with the new law, Callanen said.

One of the biggest issues was the new requirement that voters to provide, on both their vote-by-mail application and the ballot, their driver’s license number or Social Security number — critically, they must choose the same number for both.

If a voter wrote in different numbers, or a number not tied to them in the state’s system, the ballot was rejected. Some voters left that space blank, others chose the wrong number, or the state system had it wrong, Callanen said.

Making it even harder, the new portion of the form that asked for the voter’s Texas driver’s license number or the last for of their social was “in the smallest print possible,” Callanen said.

In order to fix, or “cure,” a ballot, the elections department sends it back through the post office to the voter to request changes. If there’s not enough time to mail it back and forth, the department tries to notify the voter by phone or email about the error, giving the voter a chance to come in person to the elections office to meet the curing deadline.

Corrected mail ballots are still arriving, she said, but “it’s too late. Now we can’t count them. … We had to have them back in our possession by Monday at 5 p.m.”

[…]

James Slattery, senior staff attorney on the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the new voting provisions were designed to suppress the vote.

“Voting in person, or coming in person to the clerk’s office is obviously unavailable to people who are voting by mail because they’re outside of Texas, or because they have a disability and can’t leave their home easily,” he said.

Slattery called the curing options “byzantine,” defeating the entire purpose of mail-in voting. Also, many voters are unaware of the Secretary of State’s new website that explains the new processes, he said, as the state has done a poor job of voter outreach and education.

[…]

Voters have two more chances to get it right very soon. The primary runoff election on May 24 will include several county, state and federal races, including Bexar County judgestate House District 122U.S. Congressional District 28, and State Board of Education, district 1.

Texas voters will also get the chance to reduce their property tax bills in the state’s constitutional amendment election on May 7.

That’s not much time to educate voters who may have had their mail-in ballots rejected, Callanen said.

“We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to reach out to those people to make sure that they get a ballot for May 7, that they get a ballot for May 24 without them being frustrated.”

1. The wording about ballots received and rejected in Bexar in the 2022 primaries is a bit confusing. To be clear, there were 14,180 total mail ballots cast, of which 9,809 were Democratic The historic election results on the Bexar County elections site doesn’t say how many mail ballots were cast in 2018, so I don’t have a good basis for comparison. In Harris County, there were 17,810 Democratic mail ballots cast and 11,064 Republican mail ballots, down from 22,695 and 24,500 in 2018, respectively. We don’t know how many ballots were rejected in Harris yet, but we know it was a lot early on. We need much finer data about this: How many ballot applications were rejected for each party, and how many later got fixed? How many mail ballots were then rejected for each party, and how many later got fixed? Of the people who never got a mail ballot or were not able to get their mail ballot counted, how many eventually voted in person? How many people who voted by mail in 2018 did so in 2022, how many of them voted in person instead, and how many didn’t vote at all? All of that data is available, we just need to know it.

2. What is there to be done about the people who are now apparently completely locked out of voting by mail? This story mentioned a woman who could not request one on behalf of her disabled son who can’t speak, because SB1 only allows you to request one for yourself. I was wondering about someone who gave a drivers license number when they registered to vote however many years ago but is now unable to drive and gave up their license, so they no longer have a DL number. Are they just screwed if they can’t vote in person? I feel like this may require litigation to determine, and we know how long that can take.

3. Let’s be clear, because this needs to be said over and over again, none of this bureaucratic bullshit in SB1 does a thing to make elections safer. It just makes it harder to vote by mail. The state’s lawyer admitted that was the idea in court. Republicans who believe in the big lie about the 2020 election will think what they want to, but that doesn’t mean anyone else has to.

4. All that said, unless we can get a win in court before November, which I would not count on, this is at this point a voter education issue. Everyone on the Democratic side needs to learn about the new law and help out the people they know who vote by mail to make sure their ballot is accepted. It’s harder now, and there’s no good reason for it, but this is where we are. If you are or know someone who voted by mail in 2020 and hopes to do so again, make sure you vote in both May elections, the runoff and the special. That’s your chance to practice for November.

State Bar complaint against Paxton to proceed

Nice, but I’m still not expecting there to be consequences for him. I will be delighted to be wrong about that.

Best mugshot ever

A Texas State Bar complaint against Attorney General Ken Paxton is moving forward and will be heard by either a district court judge or an administrative panel, the complainants said Tuesday.

The complaint was filed in July 2021 by the nonprofit Lawyers Defending American Democracy and 16 Texas lawyers, including four former presidents of the state Bar. It alleges that Paxton committed professional misconduct when he filed the December 2020 suit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the presidential election results in four battleground states. The complainants say the suit was frivolous, knowingly false and deceitful.

The deadline for a decision on whether there is just cause to move forward, prescribed by the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, was Sunday, and the complainants have not been notified of a dismissal.

“This is a big step because this rarely happens,” said Jim Harrington, one of the Texas lawyers who joined the complaint and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “I just know from being a lawyer for 50 years, this is very rare.”

[…]

Under the disciplinary rules, Paxton has 20 days to decide whether to request the case be heard by a district court, where proceedings are public, or by an evidentiary panel. If he chooses the evidentiary panel, the proceedings will be kept private unless public sanctions are imposed. Dismissals or private sanctions are not made public.

Harrington rejected the claim by Paxton that the complaint was guided by political bias.

“That’s the way he always is. Anyone who disagrees with him is on some sort of political witchhunt,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me what a person’s politics are … We lawyers, it’s very clear we have an ethical responsibility. It’s very clear we have to follow the rules.”

See here for some background on the July complaint against Paxton. There was a similar complaint filed in June, to which Paxton responded in July. I do not know what the status of that complaint is – you’d think it would be ahead of this one in the queue, but as noted I don’t know how this process works. Last month, there was another complaint filed over Paxton’s thuggish attempt to intimidate the Court of Criminal Appeals for its rejection of his attempt to become the supreme prosecutor of all voter fraud allegations.

Anyway. Harrington states in the article that he believes it would be appropriate for Paxton to lose his law license over this, which is the maximum penalty the Bar can levy. I agree with that, but please note that would not disqualify him from being the Attorney General. It would just be humiliating, if it’s possible for Ken Paxton to be humiliated. My guess is that he’ll choose the evidentiary panel to proceed, but we’ll know soon enough. The Trib has more.

Voting Rights Groups Sue Texas for Failure to Disclose Records Related to Voter Purges

From the inbox:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and DĒMOS filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to order Texas’ Secretary of State to produce records responsive to their previous requests seeking information about a state program that threatens to remove naturalized citizens from the voter rolls.

On August 20, 2021, the Office of the Attorney General of Texas sent a letter today stating that Secretary John Scott’s office had initiated a process to identify alleged non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls and send the identified registrants’ information to county election administrators to either verify their citizenship status or cancel their voter registration. Scott’s office has identified thousands of registrants for potential removal under this program. Soon after the program was initiated, local registrars quickly identified many of these individuals as naturalized citizens whose registration should not be in doubt. Recent reporting suggests that the Secretary’s program sweeps too broadly and endangers the registrations of thousands of eligible citizens.

In August and October 2021, CLC, ACLU of Texas, MALDEF, Lawyers’ Committee and DĒMOS submitted records requests to Secretary Scott for records related to the new voter purge program and the data the Secretary of State relied on to determine each voter’s citizenship status. Under the National Voter Registration Act, the Secretary of State is required to keep this data and disclose it upon request. However, Texas has so far failed to produce any records.

“The right to vote is what makes this country a free one and naturalized citizens in Texas, and every U.S. state, should not have to worry about being purged from the voting rolls. We all deserve the chance to cast our ballots freely, safely and equally,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president at Campaign Legal Center. “Sadly, it is clear that the court now needs to step in and protect that freedom by compelling the state to produce the records for this program—thereby making our elections safe, accessible and transparent.”

“Texas can’t shirk its obligations under federal law to release information about its new voter purge program,” said Ashley Harris, attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “The public deserves to know why Texas continues to falsely flag U.S. citizens for removal from the voter rolls.”

“The Secretary of State’s voter purge program once again surgically targets naturalized U.S. citizens for investigation and removal from the voter rolls,” stated Nina Perales, MALDEF Vice President of Litigation. “Naturalized U.S. citizens have the same right to vote as all other citizens, and this new lawsuit seeks to ensure that Texas treats its voters fairly.”

“It seems that Texas is incapable – or worse, unwilling – to learn from the past. Racial and ethnic discrimination in voting has been a sad part of Texas’s history continuing in the present. And discriminating against naturalized citizens falls into this unfortunate pattern,” commented Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We need to shed light on precisely how Texas is identifying voters it wants to purge from the rolls in order to ensure that the precious right to vote is not snatched from eligible voters, whose only ‘crime’ is that they are naturalized and not native-born citizens.”

“This effort to block Black and brown Texans’ access to the ballot is part of a larger, nationwide effort to dismantle the fundamentals of our democracy. Naturalized citizens who are registered to vote have every right to have their voices heard in every election,” said Brenda Wright, Senior Advisor for Legal Strategies at Demos. “The state owes the people of Texas transparency regarding its voter purge practices to ensure fairness and confidence in the democratic process.”

In 2019, CLC, ACLU Texas, MALDEF, Lawyers’ Committee, and DĒMOS all represented clients suing Texas’ former Secretary of State for inaccurately flagging tens of thousands of naturalized U.S. citizen registered voters as non-U.S. citizens. After a district court found the program likely unlawful, Texas entered into a settlement agreement to reform its flawed voter purge program. But the reintroduction of this program has been riddled with reported errors. While the state claims to be applying the procedures outlined in that settlement agreement, Secretary Scott’s refusal to turn over basic information has made this difficult to verify.

Early indicators show that the state may not be following the procedure outlined, leading voters to be inaccurately flagged as non-U.S. citizens. According to public statements from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, 2,327 of the over 11,000 registered voters flagged as being potential non-U.S. citizens have had their voter registrations canceled. Yet, the state has only confirmed that 278—approximately 2%—of the voters flagged are non-U.S. citizens.

The court must ensure that the state produces lists of every registered voter identified under its new voter deletion program as a potential non-U.S. citizen and the data the Secretary of State relied on to flag individuals as potential non-U.S. citizens. This will enable good government and civil rights groups to continue to protect Texans’ freedom to vote, ensure that their voices are heard and guarantee that the state’s elections are safe and accessible for all.

A copy of the complaint is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/tx_nvra_complaint_.pdf

See here and here for the most recent chapters in this long story. Raise your hand if you’re even a little bit surprised that the state of Texas has been less than forthcoming with its data. It’s annoying as hell that all this work needs to be done for this very basic function of our government, and I’m grateful to the groups that are doing it. The Dallas Observer has more.

Don’t expect the absentee ballot fiasco to improve

Things are working as planned.

Signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in September, the voting law known as Senate Bill 1 contained an array of new restrictions on the state’s voting process and narrowed local control of elections.

Among its many provisions — and the earliest to be tested — are new rules for voting by mail. Absentee voters are now required to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number on their applications for a mail-in ballot. Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record or their application will be rejected.

Regular mail-in voters must submit new applications each year, and when counties began accepting them this year, the rejection rates were staggering. Hundreds of applications were deficient, in some cases missing an ID number. In other cases, voters had listed a number that didn’t appear to be on file with the local elections office.

The secretary of state’s office has been working to backfill its records to include both driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers for most voters, but various Texas counties — including some of the state’s largest — did not know they were supposed to check the state’s database along with their own when trying to validate an application.

Election officials across the state said they either weren’t aware the driver’s license numbers had been uploaded to the state database, known by election administrators as TEAM, or weren’t aware that the new numbers would not sync with their local databases. To them, it appeared the numbers were missing from a voter’s record.

“There were several large counties that are offline that were not aware that they’d have to go beyond their internal systems, and I’m one of them,” said Chris Davis, the Williamson County elections administrator. (Counties that use a local database are known as “offline counties.”)

The discrepancy helped drive an initial 50% rejection rate of applications in Travis County, the “vast majority” of which officials attributed to the new rules, before offline counties learned the new driver’s license numbers had not been pushed to their local databases. The rejection rate had dropped to 27% in figures Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir released Tuesday, though the total number of applications the county received had more than doubled by then.

The rejection issues led to a public spat between DeBeauvoir, a Democrat, who criticized the state for not providing counties with comprehensive guidance, and the secretary of state’s office, which zeroed in on the county’s rejection of an “unusually large” share of applications in a press release calling on officials to correct “erroneous” rejections.

But the information gap over matching ID numbers went beyond Travis County. While “waiting to get clear instructions” from the state, Vona Hudson, the election administrator in rural Tom Green County, said she was running into ID issues with 40% to 50% of the applications coming in.

Hudson didn’t get clarity on the syncing problems until a last-minute webinar held by the secretary of state’s office Tuesday morning to address “frequently asked questions” about the new ID requirements.

In a statement this week, the governor’s office put the blame for issues with the new rules on county officials “erroneously interpreting the law” instead of asking the state for assistance.

“The bottom line is that counties should not be rejecting valid mail ballot applications,” said Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for the governor. “The Secretary of State’s office will continue to work with counties across the state to combat the misinformation being spread by county election officials and ensure that all valid mail ballot applications are processed.”

But beyond the confusion over how to match numbers, early figures released by some of the state’s largest counties showed that a bigger problem was applications coming in with no ID numbers on them at all.

For example, Bexar County initially rejected 125 applications because voters provided a driver’s license number that was not in their voter record, while 200 were rejected because the ID section was not filled out. Thirty applications were rejected because the voter submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field.

Of the 208 applications Harris County initially rejected based on the new rules, 137 were rejected because voters had not filled out the new ID requirements. As of Jan. 14, county officials said they had rejected another 172 applications that lacked ID numbers.

In its update Tuesday, Travis County said about half of the 509 applications it had rejected did not include any ID information.

County officials said they were also hamstrung in how much education they could provide voters about the new requirements. In SB 1, Republican lawmakers made it a state jail felony for an election official to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it — a broad prohibition election officials said has made them fearful that once unremarkable voter outreach efforts could now be construed as criminal.

SB 1 also made it a state jail felony for local election officials to proactively send applications to voters who did not request them, even if voters automatically qualify to vote by mail because of age. Political parties can still send out unsolicited applications on their own dime.

“It’s understandable if you’re focusing on what’s most important in a given week or a given month that you might lose track of some of these other issues, and I think that goes for secretary of state as well,” Remi Garza, the president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said of the miscommunication between the state and the counties.

But this was a foreseeable situation, said Garza, who serves as the elections administrator for Cameron County.

Voting rights advocates have panned state Republican leadership over the issues, both because the problems were forewarned and because the law’s implementation date has not allowed election officials enough time to roll out its new requirements. Over the last year, advocates questioned how voters were expected to know which ID number might be on their voter record when they aren’t required to provide both while registering to vote.

Lawmakers bear “the responsibility to foresee problems in the implementation of a law,” said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who testified on the ID issues at the Legislature.

“They are now reaping what they’ve sown,” said Slattery. “Though I should say it’s really the voter reaping what they’ve sown, which is the tragedy of all this. At the moment, it’s the voters that are facing the consequences.”

It would be nice to think that the Republicans who passed this atrocity will hear it from their voters who have been adversely affected. I just don’t think there will be that much blowback on them. For one thing, it’s still the case that only a limited number of people even can vote by mail, so the people feeling the brunt of this are a relatively small group. Of those that are Republicans – since let’s face it, those are the only ones that Greg Abbott and company care about – you have to figure that Donald Trump has made voting by mail a lot less attractive to them. And, as we have seen, Republican voters don’t seem to mind laws that make their lives worse as long as they believe that it’s making the lives of people they don’t like even more worse. So, while there is still the potential for disaster that will very much affect only Republicans in the near future, I don’t expect there to be much pressure on the people responsible for it. This was a feature, not a bug. If there isn’t a federal law to clear out some of these obstacles, we’re going to be stuck with it until we can elect enough Democrats to change the law. Given that the State Senate is pretty well out of reach for the foreseeable future, even with a great result elsewhere this is going to take some time.

It would seem that the San Marcos Police Department has some major problems

Geez.

The city of San Marcos admits in new court documents to text exchanges among its police officers about the Joe Biden bus incident in October 2020.

But it denies what it calls a “characterization” of the exchanges by the original complainants.

In documents filed in federal court Dec. 30, attorneys for the defendants denied almost all of the 173 allegations laid out in the original complaint. The defendants include the city’s public safety director, Chase Stapp; an assistant police chief, Brandon Winkenwerder; a police corporal, Matthew Daenzer; and the City of San Marcos.

In the lawsuit, which originally was filed in June 2021 by campaign staffers and volunteers for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the plaintiffs say the Police Department refused to provide a police escort or assistance for their campaign bus after it was surrounded by a pro-Trump caravan on Interstate 35 in October 2020.

The lawsuit alleges that Biden staffers called 911 and “begged” for help from police, but the police “privately laughed and joked about the victims and their distress, including by calling them ‘tards,’ making fun of a campaign staffer’s ‘hard’ breathing, and retorting that they should just ‘drive defensively’ or ‘leave the train.’”

Attorneys for the campaign staffers and volunteers obtained text messages via a public records request between Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and other police officers that they said showed the officials mocking and laughing at the bus occupants.

In the defendants’ response to the complaint filed last week, attorneys for Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and the city denied almost all the allegations in the lawsuit or said that they did not have enough “knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief” about them.

They did admit that the text exchanges occurred, but they denied the “characterization of the communication” contained in the complaint.

In one text exchange, an officer asked “did Kamala show?” — a reference to Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris — and another officer answered, “no, just a couple other yards,” which the plaintiffs’ lawyers claim was a misspelling of his intended word, “tards.” Lawyers for the city denied that characterization.

In another text, Stapp said: “from what I gather, the Biden bus never even exited I-35 thanks to the Trump escort.” Lawyers for Stapp and the city admitted that text was factual.

See here and here for the background. I have nothing against the city of San Marcos, but they have a real problem on their hands, and they need to do something about it. The trial is scheduled for November. I’ll be rooting very hard for the plaintiffs. The Current has more.

How’s that online voter registration thing going?

Pretty well, it seems. So well, perhaps, that the state of Texas doesn’t want to tell you how well.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Since a federal judge forced Texas nearly a year and a half ago to offer limited online voter registration, 1.5 million Texans have used the option, according to new state data.

The August 2020 ruling, which found Texas in violation of the National Voter Registration Act, required state officials to give residents the opportunity to register when they renew their driver’s license online. The system was in place a month later.

Advocates say the new data speaks to the success of online registration — and is evidence that Texas, one of just a few states that does not offer an online option for every registrant, should implement the program statewide. Republican leaders in state government have resisted such change, instead pursuing new voting restrictions in the name of election security.

“The very best thing you can do is have systems where the government is seamlessly integrating voter registration into other processes,” said Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented the plaintiffs in the case that spurred the creation of the online system.

[…]

“Getting registered to vote is not something that many people necessarily remember,” said Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project. “And in the process of moving, it’s very likely that this would not be on the top of their list of things to address, like changing their electricity, gas providers and forwarding all their mail.”

Without more granular data on first-time voter registrations filed online, it’s difficult to determine whether the option has had a significant impact on Texas’ overall registration numbers, Blank added. More than 17 million people are registered to vote in Texas.

Still, it’s doubtful that GOP leaders would embrace an expansion of online registration in Texas, which has some of the nation’s strictest voting laws. Republicans have long declined to allow any online voter registration, saying it would lead to an increase in election fraud — even as 63 percent of Texas voters would support such a system, according to an October 2020 poll by the Texas Politics Project.

The availability of online registration “flies in the face” of Texas’ current approach to voting policies, Blank said. The GOP-led Legislature spent months earlier this year campaigning for a sweeping elections bill that, in part, restricted voting hours in some parts of the state, prohibited drive-thru and overnight voting, and introduced new ID requirements for mail-in ballot applications.

“Texas has been at the forefront recently of enacting strict voting laws, and, in truth, has been at the forefront of enacting strict voting laws for much of the last decade,” Blank said. “Even in an area like this, where I think a majority of voters … say that we should expand online voter registration, it’s unlikely that you’d see something like this move in Texas.”

But advocates say they’ll continue to push for a extensive online registration system — and, if possible, automatic voter registration. Both changes would not only facilitate access to the ballot box, but also address longstanding racial inequities in Texas’ voter rolls, said Marziani of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, the state would not break down the data by new voters versus existing voters who are updating their address. My guess is that it’s overwhelmingly the latter, but that’s also a big deal because it keeps those folks from getting caught in the various voter purges that the state and some counties engage in. There is of course no justification for not allowing people to handle voter registration matters online – any legal security measure can be done just as readily – it’s just that the Republicans who are in control don’t want it. Here, for once, they had no choice. Now imagine what it would be like if we had a more robust federal voting rights law to force them on some other matters.

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Trump Train lawsuit update

San Marcos Police Department, wyd?

As supporters of then-President Donald Trump surrounded and harassed a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Central Texas highway last year, San Marcos police officials and 911 dispatchers fielded multiple requests for assistance from Democratic campaigners and bus passengers who said they feared for their safety from a pack of motorists, known as a “Trump Train,” allegedly driving in dangerously aggressive ways.

“San Marcos refused to help,” an amended federal lawsuit over the 2020 freeway skirmish claims.

Transcribed 911 audio recordings and documents that reveal behind-the-scenes communications among law enforcement and dispatchers were included in the amended lawsuit, filed late Friday.

The transcribed recordings were filed in an attempt to show that San Marcos law enforcement leaders chose not to provide the bus with a police escort multiple times, even though police departments in other nearby cities did. In one transcribed recording, Matthew Daenzer, a San Marcos police corporal on duty the day of the incident, refused to provide an escort when recommended by another jurisdiction.

“No, we’re not going to do it,” Daenzer told a 911 dispatcher, according to the amended filing. “We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus.”

The amended filing also states that in those audio recordings, law enforcement officers “privately laughed” and “joked about the victims and their distress.”

Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who was running for Congress at the time, is among the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The new complaint also expands the number of people and entities being sued to include Daenzer, San Marcos assistant police chief Brandon Winkenwerder and the city itself.

See here for the background. The whole story is infuriating, ridiculous, and scary – I mean, it’s political violence that at least one law enforcement agency chose to just shrug off. It’s the sort of thing that Republicans spent the 80s warning us was happening in countries that the Soviet Union was trying to influence. There’s been very little accountability of any kind for this type of activity, and maybe the civil courts aren’t the best venue for exacting any, but it’s what we’ve got right now. I sure hope the plaintiffs can make it happen.

Abbott and Patrick whine about State Bar complaint against Paxton

Poor, poor babies.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s top officials came to the defense of embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying a state bar investigation into his professional conduct is “politically motivated” and raises questions about the state’s separation of powers.

On Friday, Paxton said he had filed an objection to a state bar investigation prompted by his decision to file a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 presidential elections in four battleground states. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit saying Texas did not have standing to file it.

Paxton called the state bar investigation “partisan” and said it was “weaponizing” its regulatory power against the attorney general’s office.

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also blasted the investigation into the fellow Republican. Abbott, a former attorney general, said said the issue presented a “threatened intrusion upon executive branch authority.”

“These allegations raise separation-of-powers questions under our Constitution,” Abbott said in a statement. “I am confident that the Supreme Court of Texas, to which the State Bar of Texas is ultimately accountable, will ensure that the judicial branch upholds the law.”

Patrick said the investigation “appears politically motivated.”

“It is clear the Investigatory Panel, stacked with Biden and Democrat donors and activists, has weaponized its state-granted power, intended to protect a fair and just practice of law, to instead launch an attack over political differences,” he said in a statement. “These actions undermine the integrity of the Investigatory Panel and the State Bar of Texas as a whole.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Note that there are two complaints against Paxton, so it’s not clear to me which one is being whined about or responded to. I’m picturing Paxton standing behind Abbott and Patrick, like a little brother who’s gotten in over his head with the neighborhood kids. He’s picked a fight he doesn’t think he can win, so he tries to scare off his antagonists. It’s like an episode of The Little Rascals, if Spanky or Alfalfa had been caught trying to overthrow the government. We live in such dumb times.

A kinder, gentler voter purge

How nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two years after Texas officials fumbled an effort to double-check the voting rolls on a hunt for non-citizens — and instead threatened the voting rights of nearly 60,000 eligible Texans — similar efforts to purge non-citizen voters are now the law of the land, thanks to provisions tucked into the massive elections bill enacted earlier this month.

The Secretary of State will once again be allowed to regularly compare driver’s license records to voter registration lists in a quest to find people who are not eligible.

But while Republicans are determined to make another run at the controversial purge that alarmed civil rights groups two years ago, they insist they’ve made key changes to prevent a repeat of the same mistakes.

“They blew it last time,” acknowledged Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

So much so, then-Secretary of State David Whitley resigned his position in the aftermath and triggered a public apology from his office. Civil rights groups also sued his office and blocked the state from continuing the purge at the time.

Starting by December of this year, the Secretary of State will review Department of Public Safety records every month looking for potential non-citizens. But this time lawmakers have put in a provision that intentionally bars the Secretary of State from going too far back in time as it scours drivers’ license records, something that led to some of the problems in 2019.

In some instances, the state flagged legal voters who had become naturalized citizens since the time they first applied for a driver’s license a decade or more earlier. Non-citizens, including those with visas or green cards to stay in the U.S., are able to get Texas driver’s licenses. The state’s 2019 analysis flagged those drivers, but it never accounted for the fact that about 50,000 Texans become naturalized citizens each year.

The result was many legitimate voters receiving letters warning they were at risk of being knocked off the voter rolls and facing potential legal action because of faulty data.

By hastening to send out the written warnings, civil rights groups said the state caused a lot of fear and confusion, particularly for naturalized citizens.

“Definitely this is substantially better than what they were doing before,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

But Gonzalez said he’s still worried about the reliability of Department of Public Safety drivers’ license databases and the inherent pitfalls of trying to compare millions of records against millions of other records. He said there is just too much room for error.

“There are still concerns that they will be falsely flagging people,” he said.

There’s too much to even sum up, so just go here for all things David Whitley. The provision the Democrats fought for should limit the damage, and for that we can be thankful. But there’s still no reason to trust anything the state is likely to want to do to “clean up” the voter rolls. They have not earned any benefit of the doubt. I will be delighted to be pleasantly surprised by this, but we very much need to keep a close eye on the process, because again, the state cannot be trusted.

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final settlement in Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

From Democracy Docket:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last Friday, individual Texan voters, the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) settled a five-year long lawsuit with Texas over its noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The settlement outlines the state’s plans to permanently offer simultaneous voter registration when an eligible voter renews or updates his or her driver’s licenses or ID cards online — an option not offered before this litigation.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2016 by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of individual Texas voters, challenged the state’s misleading practice of providing the option to register to vote when completing online transactions with the transportation agency. Notably, checking this option did not actually register someone to vote, which violated the NVRA’s requirement that states offer voter registration or the ability to update registrations when an eligible voter obtains, renews or updates his or her driver’s license. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas found that this practice violated the NVRA and 14th Amendment and struck the law down, but after the voters updated their registration, the court found that they no longer had standing to sue. The Texas Democratic Party, DSCC and DCCC successfully intervened in the case to expand this victory. The court ordered the state to comply with the NVRA in August 2020 and since then, over one million Texans have registered to vote while completing an online driver’s license transaction. The settlement makes the court-ordered compliance permanent throughout the state.

Read the key filings from the case here.

See here and here for some background; there are more links at that second post. This KUT story, referenced above, came out a day or so before the final settlement agreement.

After a lengthy court battle, the Texas Department of Safety has started allowing voters to update their voter information at the same time they update their driver’s license information online.

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of three voters in Texas who thought they had updated their addresses on their voter registration through the DPS website. They later found out that never happened because online voter registration is illegal in Texas.

The plaintiffs in the case were Jarrod Stringer, Nayeli Gomez and John Harms, as well as two organizations, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas.

The lawsuit claimed Texas was violating the National Voter Registration Act — which includes federal motor voter laws — and the U.S. Constitution. The Texas Civil Rights Project first sued the state five years ago, but the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality. The group sued again shortly after.

A federal judge sided with the Texas Civil Rights Project and ordered the state to change its practices last year, forcing Texas to “create the first-ever opportunity for some Texans to register to vote online” starting in September, the group said in a press release.

Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told KUT that DPS data shows that about a million voter registration transactions have occurred in the past ten months.

“That means that’s an average of a 100,000 Texans per month are now registering to vote — or updating their voter registration — with their online drivers’ transaction,” she said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Here’s a Twitter thread from the TCRP that breaks this down by month since last November. Note the qualification “or updating their voter registration”. That means that anyone who updated their drivers license information – name change, address change, etc – are counted in this total, as they were then able to update their voter registration information at the same time. That’s a big deal and a much-needed bit of convenience for Texans who now don’t have to do that same transaction twice, but it is not one million new voters registered. I don’t want to downplay this because it is a big deal, but I also don’t want to overstate it.

Marziani told KUT that this should prompt the state to expand online voter registration to all eligible Texans, not just those updating their drivers’ license information. Currently, 42 states and D.C. have online voter registration. Texas is among the small minority of states that doesn’t.

Marziani said Texas now has “absolutely no practical reason” not to expand and implement full online voter legislation.

“Now with the state implementing this online voter registration with driver’s license transactions, the state completely has the backend infrastructure to roll out online voter registration,” she said.

Absolutely, and it remains a disgrace that Texas doesn’t have online voter registration. But we all know why, and we know what is going to be needed to make it happen. This is a step in the right direction, but the rest of the way is up to us winning more elections.

Another State Bar complaint against Paxton

He certainly deserves all the trouble this has brought him. Whether any of it leads to actual consequences, we’ll have to see.

Best mugshot ever

Four former presidents of the State Bar of Texas joined a group of high-profile lawyers on Wednesday to file an ethics complaint against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, over his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory against former President Donald Trump.

Paxton filed a widely criticized lawsuit with the Supreme Court in December, in which he sued the battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over what he claimed were “unconstitutional irregularities” in their election processes. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, which came as Trump and his allies repeatedly promoted baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” or “stolen.”

The organization Lawyers Defending American Democracy, which asserts it is not partisan, filed the lawsuit in connection with 16 prominent Texas attorneys.

“The injunction Mr. Paxton sought with the Supreme Court would have usurped the presidency for the next four years and cast doubt on whether truly democratic presidential elections would ever have been restored in America,” Jim Harrington, one of the complaints signers and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement published on LDAD’s website.

Harrington said Paxton’s actions “demonstrated his disregard for the ethical rules which govern lawyers and for our country’s democratic principles.”

As you may recall, there’s already such a complaint against Paxton. I don’t know how the State Bar works, but I would assume these two would be combined. Reading that earlier post reminded me that Paxton was supposed to have responded to that complaint within 30 days, and indeed he has responded, asking for the complaint to be dropped – he’s basically saying that the original complainant doesn’t have standing to file against him. As a non-lawyer, I shrug my shoulders as I have no way to evaluate this claim on my own. Those of you who are lawyers, feel free to enlighten us.

Above the Law adds some details.

The bar complaint alleges that Paxton violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by filing a frivolous suit, making false statements of fact and law to a tribunal, engaging in deceitful conduct, and failing to uphold the Constitution.

The complainants point to Paxton’s representation that Biden’s odds of winning the election were less than one in a quadrillion, a gross distortion of a economist Charles Cicchetti’s assertion that this was the probability of Biden winning if the votes before and after 3am were randomly drawn from the population as a whole. Cicchetti’s analysis was ridiculous on its face even before Paxton mangled it — the differential between in-person votes favoring Trump and absentee ballots favoring Biden had been widely predicted. And furthermore, smaller rural areas, which tend to lean Republican, were always going to complete their counting before cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta.

As for misstatements of law, the complainants point to Paxton’s bizarre theory of standing which “flew in the face of the Electors Clause and the bedrock constitutional principle of each State’s sovereignty within our federal system.”

“The standing to sue Mr. Paxton sought from the Supreme Court had no basis in law and would have been a prescription for an autocratic President to perpetuate his power indefinitely against the will of the voters,” said Gershon (Gary) Ratner, co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy and principal author of the complaint.

Here’s the LDAD statement on their complaint, and here’s the complaint itself for your perusal. Note that they had called for Paxton to be sanctioned within a week of his filing that ridiculous lawsuit. I don’t know if it took them this long to prepare their complaint or if there was something else going on, but here we are. I don’t know enough to add anything else at this point, so stay tuned.

Suing the “Trump Train”

Good.

A group of people traveling on a President Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last fall when it was surrounded and followed by former President Donald Trump’s supporters have filed a lawsuit against at least seven people who allegedly were following the bus, claiming the group violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”

The Klan Act prevents groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the defendants violated that law when they followed the bus, yelling death threats and streaming their activities on social media.

The plaintiffs include former state Sen. Wendy Davis, David Gins, a then-campaign staffer who now serves as deputy director for operations for Vice President Kamala Harris, Eric Cervini, another campaign volunteer, and the bus driver, Timothy Holloway. The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. The bus driver, Holloway, has been unable to drive a bus following the experience. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees to be covered.

“What Defendants cannot do under the law is use force, intimidation, or threats against those with whom they disagree politically. Yet that is precisely what Defendants did by conspiring to use their vehicles as weapons to interfere with the constitutional rights of those who supported the Biden-Harris Campaign,” the lawsuit reads. “The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, association, and assembly is empty if those rights cannot be freely exercised. And where groups are permitted to terrorize those with whom they disagree into forgoing their constitutional rights, the functioning of our democracy demands accountability.”

[…]

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune in January, Davis said she didn’t think law enforcement had taken the situation seriously enough. She said in San Antonio, police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks with Trump flags back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan once again surrounded the bus. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

“They just kept saying, ‘Where are you now? Where are you now,’” Davis said in January. “We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker. … Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable.”

I didn’t blog about that incident at the time because there was a lot going on and there wasn’t much to add to it except inchoate anger. The Texas Civil Rights Project has a landing page for this – it appears there are two complaints, both of which have some unnamed defendants – with a one page explanation of the lawsuit and the law it has been filed under. The one pager says that the Klan Act has been “mostly unused” over the past hundred years, so who knows how a judge will view it. There is apparently still an FBI investigation of the incident, so perhaps we’ll be able to hear about what they have learned.

The Chron provides some details about the two suits.

The first of two lawsuits filed Thursday targets at least seven individuals who were driving the vehicles that surrounded the bus. The second addresses local law enforcement officers, whom the plaintiffs contend did not properly respond to the incident.

[…]

The first lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the individuals involved in surrounding the bus violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits people from conspiring to inhibit individuals’ political speech via force, intimidation or threats.

“Plaintiffs feared the Trump Train might run the bus off the road, or that they might crash into a vehicle, wall barrier, sign, pillar, or other obstacle on or by the highway,” the lawsuit states. “They feared what the Trump Train might do if they succeeded in stopping the bus or forcing the bus off the road. Plaintiffs were terrified that someone on the bus, or someone else driving on the interstate, would be injured or killed.”

The second lawsuit claims that, as Biden staffers solicited aid from the San Marcos Police Department, they “were failed by the very officials charged with upholding both their safety and their foundational democratic rights.” The plaintiffs allege that they contacted San Marcos police with safety concerns a day in advance of their travels, and that officers declined to provide help when the bus was surrounded on the highway.

A spokesperson said last fall that the San Marcos Police Department had received a request for a police escort, but they couldn’t catch up with the vehicle before it left the city.

The lawsuit contradicts that claim, asserting that officers said they wouldn’t respond unless the campaign was “reporting a crime.”

OK then. Assuming they survive a motion to dismiss, I will be very interested to see what comes out of the discovery process, because the potential is there for this to connect to some public figures. I mean, it sure seems likely to me that what happened didn’t come as a complete surprise to various Republican campaigns and the state and county parties. I will also be interested to see if some fancy high-priced attorneys materialize for the defense. It’s surely best to keep one’s expectations low on this, but the potential is there for some accountability to be had. Here’s hoping.

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

I remain pessimistic about this, but we have no choice but to fight.

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters — like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English — in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

[…]

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail in ballot application — this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

See here for the previous update. I’m going to spare myself a little work by pointing you to some other people who have done the work of highlighting how and why HB6 is just as dangerous as SB7. For example, the latest defensive maneuver by Dan Patrick and now Speaker Dade Phelan is to claim that the critics of these bills just haven’t read them, and to double-dog-dare them to point out any restictionist provisions they allegedly contain. Well, challenge accepted:

I presume she’ll follow with a thread for HB6, but give her a little time. Also, as a historical note, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the Jim Crow laws of the old South never actually said they were intended to keep Black Americans from voting. They were just restrictions on voting that technically affected everyone but which the lawmakers knew and intended would have a much greater effect on Black voters (and which they could ensure via enforcement). Ignorance of history (real or feigned) is no excuse for trying to repeat it.

The real danger in these bills has to do with their elevating poll watchers into some kind of protected group. Why is that a problem? Because poll watchers are unvetted partisans, and in Texas their main role is making voters of color feel harassed:

What could possibly go wrong? This video has already generated some national coverage. One hopes that’s just the beginning.

Finally, while HB6 and SB7 are the big headliner voter-suppression bills, there are a lot of smaller, more targeted voter-suppression bills to watch out for as well:

So now you know. The Texas Signal and Popular Information, which goes deep on Dan Patrick, have more.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

Census apportionment shenanigans to be officially curtailed

As it should be.

The Trump administration’s protracted efforts to keep some immigrants from being counted when congressional seats are divvied up after the 2020 census ended with the former president’s departure from the White House, but President Joe Biden’s administration inherits a census running far behind schedule.

Among his first acts after being inaugurated, Biden on Wednesday is expected to sign an executive order undoing his predecessor’s plan to keep undocumented immigrants from being included in the state-by-state tallies that determine how those living in the U.S. are represented in Congress for the next 10 years.

Trump’s scheme to fundamentally alter the process had already been foiled by processing delays, but Biden’s order serves as an official reversal as state lawmakers wait for the detailed census results they need to reconfigure political districts to reflect a decade’s worth of population growth.

The most significant effect for Texas politically remains an extended delay in the Legislature’s efforts to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative districts, and part of the job could ultimately fall to a Legislative Redistricting Board or the courts.

Texas lawmakers would ordinarily expect to receive detailed data from the census as soon as mid-February — marking an unofficial kickoff to the redrawing of political districts so they’re roughly equal in population. Instead, the Texas Legislature is operating on uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country last year just as it was set to begin the high-stakes, once-a-decade count of every person living in the U.S., setting back elaborate plans for counting communities and the deadline for tallying by several months. With the release of that data delayed — and amid political turmoil at the Census Bureau — it remains unclear whether lawmakers will even be able to embark on the redistricting process before the end of the regular legislative session in May.

“It appears to me [that] a reasonable person would look at what is occurring today and believe the numbers would not come until early summer, but don’t hold me to that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said on the Senate floor last week.

[…]

The Census Bureau was statutorily required to produce the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state gets by Dec. 31, but lawyers for the federal government indicated in court hearings that those counts won’t be ready until early March because anomalies in the data must be fixed. The detailed census results used to redraw districts come in a second dataset that must be delivered to states by March 31. The federal government has not provided details on when that data will be available.

In 2011, the Census Bureau began delivering the second dataset to Texas lawmakers on Feb. 17.

In announcing his executive order on Wednesday, the Biden transition team indicated the president would “ensure that the Census Bureau has time to complete an accurate population count for each state” in search of apportionment that is “fair and accurate so federal resources are efficiently and fairly distributed for the next decade.”

“I think at this point the delays are probably a good thing” because the data is being scrubbed for accuracy, said Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been pushing for a more transparent redistricting process at the state Capitol.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, a group of former directors of the Census Bureau indicated it was “appropriate” for the bureau to take the necessary time to ensure the count was accurate given the delays caused by the pandemic.

However, state lawmakers are up against a constitutional clock that says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they fail to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the mapping with no requirement to hold hearings for public input.

“In some ways, the worst case scenario is that the data comes down to the states in May or something like that because then the Legislature really doesn’t have time to do its job correctly, but because of the state constitution, the state districts would automatically get sent to the [Legislative Redistricting Board],” Gonzalez said. “In terms of public participation and transparency, that’s sort of the worst case scenario.”

See here for the previous update. I have been assuming that the redistricting process would have to occur in a special session anyway – it just never seemed like there would be enough time to fit it into the regular session. Dems strategy will apparently be to force the matter to the courts, which was the scenario for Congressional map-drawing if they had taken the House and no agreement could be reached. Don’t know if that can work, but it’s a strategy. Putting that aside, the main result here is that Texas will get a full count, and will get the likely three new Congressional districts that it merits. I’ll never get over the fact that our state leaders didn’t fight for that, but it happened anyway without them. You’re welcome.

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

Hey, look, it’s online voter registration!

And they said it couldn’t be done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

When Jarrod Stringer updated his driver’s license address in 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety website asked if he wanted to register to vote. He clicked yes and thought he was registered. That fall, when he went to vote in San Antonio, he was denied. According to the system, he had never registered. It was past the registration deadline, so he couldn’t vote.

That kicked off a six-year legal battle that included two lawsuits for the right for Texans to register to vote online while updating their licenses.

“It’s traumatic when you can’t vote,” Stringer said. “It’s implicitly saying, ‘You don’t have a voice. You can’t participate in change.’”

On Wednesday, Stringer won that “mind-boggling” fight with the state of Texas two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in 2020. Acting on a federal judge’s orders, the state updated its online systems to allow people to add their names to the voter rolls when they update their licenses.

While it’s a limited step — the online option is still only available to people updating their licenses — the change marks the first time Texans have been able to register to vote online, which advocates say could significantly increase turnout both this year and for future elections.

Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought forward the lawsuits, said the change specifically helps marginalized Texans, who most often move.

“This is absolutely a victory for voting rights for all Texans,” Marziani said. “It’s a particular victory for younger Texans, poorer Texans and Texans of color.”

[…]

Previously, Texans like Stringer who tried to register while using the state’s online license portal were directed to a blank registration form they had to fill out, print and send to their county registrar. The state was forced to change that system after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application. Garcia had ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Wednesday.

“The Secretary of State and Texas Department of Public Safety are in compliance with the court’s order,” said Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, in a statement.

See here for the background. My guess is that the total number of people who will register for this election via this method will be countable on one’s fingers, but that’s not the point. The point, as Marziani rightly says, is that this shows how easily the state of Texas could have done this, and how easily it could be adapted for general purposes as soon as the law allows it. Given the challenges that voter registrars have faced in these COVID times, that’s a big deal. It’s still going to take a Democratic trifecta to happen, but once we get there the rest will be easy. The Chron 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.

Will we have redistricting hearings?

Not looking great for it right now.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Republicans have quietly halted plans to hold a series of public input hearings across more than 20 cities, slated to occur earlier this year, to collect public testimonials from Texans about redistricting. These testimonials would be a critical tool to help group communities which share common social and economic interests, voting patterns, and local preferences as new district maps are being drawn.

A coalition of 42 advocacy groups have taken notice of this indefinite stoppage and are demanding for the resumption of public hearings on redistricting in a safe and accessible format.

[…]

In an effort to remedy urgent concerns about the lack of preclearance and increase transparency in the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, Texas lawmakers planned for a series of public input hearings earlier this year, led by the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Both committees are led by Republicans, Rep. Phil King and Sen. Joan Huffman, respectively.

The House and Senate originally planned for a limited public hearing schedule, however, the Texas Civil Rights Project built a coalition of groups to successfully agitate for the geographic expansion of these public hearings to reach across every corner of the state, from Austin and Houston to Amarillo and Weslaco. Then, COVID-19 swept across the state.

Because state leadership prematurely opened the state and failed to enact safety measures to control the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to nearly 600,000 infections and have claimed nearly 11,000 lives, disproportionately killing Black and Latinx Texans. South Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest infection rates across the entire nation.

Due to the pandemic, public hearings for redistricting were indefinitely postponed in March. However, in the past four months since, the legislature has failed to provide a plan to resume the hearings with a modified schedule or different format.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argues that resuming this process to hear from Texans and receive community input is both urgent and vital to avoid further suppression and the dilution of voting power of Black and Brown communities.

You can see a copy of the letter and who signed it, along with a list of the cities where hearings had been tentatively scheduled, here. I attended one of these for the 2011 reapportionment, and there was a lot of interesting information that was presented, with several members of the public having useful things to say. The point of these hearings is to give the public a chance to understand what the data looks like and how any proposed new maps may affect their communities, while also giving the committee members a chance to hear about concerns and issues that they might not otherwise know about. It’s the least they can do, in my opinion, and even with a pandemic there needs to be a way to bring this opportunity to the people. Zoom meetings have their pros and cons, but they could certainly be used here, and would allow for people not in any of those 20 cities to attend without having to travel. Something is better than nothing, and right now nothing is what we have.

Plaintiffs prevail again in Motor Voter Lawsuit 2.0

Same result as before, this time without the technicality that got the first try thrown out on appeal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A persistent Texas voter, twice thwarted when he tried registering to vote while renewing his driver’s license online, has for the second time convinced a federal judge that the state is violating federal law.

In a 68-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio found that Texas continues to violate the federal National Voter Registration Act by not allowing residents to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online.

Garcia found that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application, and ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Sept. 23. The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the state is likely to appeal the ruling.

It’s the second time Garcia has sided with the voter, former English professor Jarrod Stringer. Garcia’s first ruling was overturned on appeal on a technicality.

The National Voter Registration Act requires states to let residents complete their voter registration applications when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. But Texas officials have staunchly opposed any form of online registration.

The Texas Department of Public Safety follows federal law when residents visit a driver’s license office in person. But Texans who try to register while using the state’s online portal are instead directed to a blank registration form they must fill out, print and send to their county registrar.

“DPS encourages Texans to use its online services to renew their driver’s license and change their address because it is easier and more convenient,” Garcia wrote. “It cannot, at the same time, deny simultaneous voter registration applications when those online services are used.”

Garcia has said this before. In 2018, he ordered the state to implement what would be its first system for online voter registration. A federal appeals court overturned that order in late 2019 because Stringer and his two co-plaintiffs had ultimately reregistered to vote, and the court decided the case was moot because they were no longer being harmed.

[…]

On Friday, Garcia found that Texas had “offered no factual or legal argument that would justify denying the simultaneous voter registration to which Mr. Stringer is legally entitled.”

“As Defendants have admitted, there are no technological barriers to compliance and corrective measures would not be costly,” Garcia wrote. “Uncontested expert testimony shows that a compliant DPS system would very likely lead to great efficiency, less human error, a massive saving in costs, and increased voter registration.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is another Democracy Docket case, and you can see their case files here. This will of course be appealed, and it will be interesting to see if the Fifth Circuit finds another reason to overturn or not. This ruling has basically no effect on 2020, as no one other than the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are going to get registered because of it, but longer term it could be quite large, as this would represent an entry point for online voter registration in Texas. You know and I know that it is unbelievably ridiculous that in the year 2020, when literally everything is done online, that the state of Texas requires a piece of paper to register to vote, but here we are. Obviously, a full solution needs to come from the Legislature, but if one has not arrived by the time this case is fully resolved (assuming this ruling is upheld), the state is going to have to explain why this special case of online voter registration is acceptable while all others are not. Good luck with that. Anyway, it’s a small step forward, and a welcome one. The Chron has more.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.

“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”

He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.

Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”

During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”

[…]

Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”

Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.