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The Lege

Try not to get sick before Election Day

If you suffer a late illness that prevents you from getting to a polling place, you will need a doctor’s note to get an absentee ballot.

Texas voters who get sick shortly before Election Day and can’t go to the polls will still need a doctor’s note before they can get an emergency absentee ballot, a state appeals court ruled Friday.

Voting rights group MOVE Texas will not appeal the temporary ruling further. Instead, as a fallback, the group has established a free telehealth service with volunteer physicians to provide the necessary documentation for sick voters seeking absentee ballots starting Saturday, the executive director said.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals’ ruling, overriding a state district court order, said implementing the lower court’s ruling “would change the longstanding requirements governing late mail-in ballots and risk voter confusion.” The case will still be reviewed further after the election.

MOVE Texas first challenged existing election law in a Travis County court after reports this summer detailed voters who tested positive for the coronavirus in the days before the primary runoff election struggling to cast ballots.

Unlike applications for absentee ballots received before the general deadline, which was Friday, Texas law dictates that voters submitting applications for emergency absentee ballots must provide certification from a doctor that the voter has developed an illness that would keep them from being able to vote in person.

In the July primary runoffs, two Austin voters tested positive for the new coronavirus and were put under self-quarantine orders shortly after the cutoff date for mail-in ballot applications. They asked a Travis County district judge to waive the requirement for a doctor’s note but lost their case.

On Oct. 2, MOVE Texas filed a challenge in court, arguing that the state’s criteria for applying for emergency absentee ballots is unconstitutional and imposes an undue burden on the right to vote. Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak agreed, ruling against the requirement for a doctor’s note last week.

[…]

Preparing for the loss in the 3rd Court of Appeals, Galloway said the group designed a fallback program to connect sick voters to volunteer physicians who will meet via videoconference.

“It’s completely up to the physician if they want to issue the waiver or not,” Galloway said. “If so, they can do it digitally. That voter is then set and it’s at no cost to them to be able to complete the application and turn it into the elections department.”

Probably for the best at this point. I remember the earlier story, but if I blogged about it at the time, I can’t find the post.

Let’s be clear about three things. One, this is likely to affect a tiny, tiny number of people. The set of circumstances under which someone would be affected by this are super specific. It’s always worth worrying about anyone who faces obstacles to voting, but you can probably count the number of these people on your fingers. That said, if you haven’t voted yet, you could be a person affected by this.

Two, the main reason for all of this is our state’s restrictive laws for voting by mail. In a world where getting a mail ballot is easy – or even the default – problems like this go away. This specific situation could have been addressed by the court, but the big picture needs to be handled by the Legislature.

Finally, this is the argument for voting at your first opportunity. Life is uncertain. I get wanting to vote on Election Day, out of a sense of tradition or because you want to make sure that nothing comes up that might change your mind in a given race, or because a voting location that has meaning for you is only available on Election Day. The risk you take is that the longer you take, the greater the chances that something could come up that will complicate your ability to vote. I’m a committed early voter, and have been for years. Your mileage may vary. Just be aware of the tradeoffs.

TMF files for Speaker

Now it’s a race.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer announced Monday that he is running for Texas House speaker, becoming the second Democrat in the lower chamber to launch a bid for the gavel.

Martinez Fischer, from San Antonio, joins state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, in the race. Both filings come ahead of a November election in which Democrats are within striking distance of winning control of the Republican-held House for the first time in nearly two decades.

Martinez Fischer would be the first Latino to hold the position, if elected. Thompson would be the first woman and Black person to serve as speaker.

No Republicans have filed paperwork yet with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for the job, which Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will vacate at the end of his term when he retires from office. More members from both parties are expected to enter the race in the coming days.

[…]

Martinez Fischer nodded to the upcoming legislative challenges in a statement announcing his speaker bid, saying he is running “because I believe that I am best prepared to deliver the solutions Texans expect, navigate the redistricting process, and protect the House as we chart our path forward as Texans.” Martinez Fischer also said as speaker his goal would be to “make historic changes” to the makeup of House committees in an attempt to address “the disparities in the lack of women and people of color in our leadership ranks.

“The Texas House operates on trust,” he said in his statement. “For the last twenty years, Members know that even when we may disagree, I have never been shy about saying where I stand. As Speaker, I will always deal straight.”

See here for the background. I had said that it was my belief that if Rep. Thompson wanted this, she’d have a clear path. That’s not the case, but it is early days. There were multiple people floated as possible challengers to Tom Craddick before a majority coalesced around Joe Straus, and when Dennis Bonnen succeeded Straus, it was after several other Republicans (and one Democrat) had made their intentions known. In each situation, the others simply backed down and got on board with the winner. If Dems have a clear majority in the House, I would expect there to be only one Dem in the running for Speaker at the end.

Does it mean anything that TMF filed so quickly after Thompson did? Probably not – his ambition is as good as anyone’s, he’s likely been talking about it for some time, and there are many ways to be a Speaker if one gets elected to that spot. Most of what will happen between now and when the members take a vote will not be visible to us. That said, if this ever does get ugly, we will surely hear about it. I’m sure a Republican will file at some point, but I figure there’s still some factional healing that needs to happen post-Bonnen, and no one may be ready to go public yet. This is the Lege nerds’ equivalent of fantasy football – it’s of extreme interest to a few, and means nothing to normal people. Enjoy the ride, or feel free to tune out until something interesting happens, it’s your call.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

Thompson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.

Bill Kelly: Voting Matters

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

The national headlines have highlighted the increased turnout among Harris County voters, and rightfully so. But rather than discuss or project what that increase is likely to mean for election results, it is worth noting the actual mechanics of how so many of our neighbors are able to cast these early votes.

Chris Hollins, our Harris County Clerk, and his team have rolled out an impressive and imaginative early voting plan. Commissioner’s Court deserves credit for making the needed investments so that citizens in Harris County can safely access the ballot even during this pandemic.

Now I’ve been working in campaigns in Harris County since 2003, but this is the first time we have operated under a Democratic County Clerk for a general election. And the difference it has made is truly amazing, and I hope people can tell the subtle changes that are making a significant difference in giving voters access.

First, there is the timing. Governor Abbott’s decision to expand the normal 12 day early voting period to 18 days was critical to promoting a safer – and less crowded – voting experience. The tremendous turnout we have seen in the last 9 days would have packed polling locations without this additional time.

Days are made up of hours, and the investment by Harris County to keep polls open from 7am to 7pm is actual a big deal. Under previous clerks, early voting hours were restricted to the hours between 8:30am to 4:00pm during the first 5 days of early voting.

It is common sense and now self-evident that more people are turning out when the polls are open longer at more convenient times for voters.

What I want to point out is that proposition remains true in reverse: fewer voters access early voting when there are fewer hours.

While Harris County was operating under restrictive hours, Tarrant, Travis, and Dallas Counties all offered more hours for early voting. The Harris County excuse? It would cost more.

Having a Clerk who values democracy matters.

Second, locations – locations – locations. Today, there are 122 early voting locations around Harris County. In 2018, that number was close to 40. Again, this is not a difficult concept, but to see the scale of progress is really amazing.

Aside from tripling the number, nowhere is the location accessibility factor more visible than on our major college campuses. Having early voting locations at the University of Houston (Go Coogs!), Rice, and Texas Southern is a game changer.

In 2008, the closest early voting locations to each of these campuses was the Fiesta near NRG or the HCC Southeast location near I-45 South & 610.

For anyone familiar with Houston geography, these locations are not convenient – at all – to any of these campuses.

Again, Harris County choose not to place an easily accessible early voting locations before Hollins did for any general election. If you think this was an accident, I’d point to the campus openings of Rice in 1912, UH in 1939, and TSU in 1946. It should not take over 70 years to get an early vote site on these campuses.

Investing in over 100 locations in a county of 4.7 million should be the new normal – if the goal is to increase voter access and participation.

Finally, election day itself has been transformed to offer greater access. In campaign after campaign in the 2000s, the message of “you can early vote anywhere in the county” would quickly pivot to “you can ONLY vote in your neighborhood precinct.”

You wanna see a campaign manager in a panic? Tell them their election day doorhangers have the wrong polling location.

While Harris County clung to this system, Fort Bend creating election day Voting Centers, which allowed anyone in the county to vote at these locations on election day. It was an easy message to point toward a location where every voter in the county could vote. Another choice made that made voting less accessible.

Now, voters in Harris County can vote at ANY voting location on election day. For low propensity voters, the ease of pulling into a polling location and hearing, “yes, you can vote here,” again helps more voters participate in voting.

Timing, locations, and countywide access are all concrete policy changes that have been instituted by the Harris County Clerk since 2018. But these changes should not be the end point.

Even before the voting process begins, state policy looks to restrict access in ways that are laughable. The lack of online voter registration in Texas is a clear indictment of suppression policy. Despite statewide support for the policy, Senator Carol Alvarado faced opposition on her bill to create this online voter registration system by Republicans in Harris County.

Wonder why.

To be clear, the Texas Election Code allows for astronauts to voter from space . . . but does not allow for online voter registration. Seriously.

Online registration is less expensive, much cleaner with data input, and is unquestionable easier for citizens looking to register than mailing in an application.

Texans are choosing their new elected leaders right now. Much of the Texas political power structure does not want a larger voter turnout, which is directly reflected by the voting policy.

Harris County decided to invest in greater voter access. It is making a difference.

Bill Kelly works as the Director of Government Relations for Mayor Sylvester Turner. He has worked on the winning campaigns for Mayor Bill White (2003), State Rep. Hubert Vo (2004), Council Member Peter Brown (2005), State Rep. Ellen Cohen (2006), and the Harris County Coordinated Campaign (2008).

Abbott sloshes some money around the State House races

Not really a surprise.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign is ratcheting up its down-ballot efforts in the final weeks before the November election, working to defend the Republican majority in the state House and to remind voters about the importance of electing the party’s judges farther down the ballot.

In what his campaign described as a “mid-seven-figure” total expenditure, it is putting its weight behind two dozen House races and running statewide TV and radio commercials about judges. The news of the effort, detailed to The Texas Tribune, comes as early voting is underway and both sides have already invested millions of dollars in the House fight.

Abbott’s campaign is confident Republicans will beat back the Democrats’ drive to capture the majority, which would be a major prize ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.

“They’re spending a lot of money — there’s no question about that — and that’s nothing we didn’t expect from Day 1,” Abbott’s chief political strategist, Dave Carney, said in an interview. He acknowledged Republicans “will lose some members,” but noted the possibility that the party could win back some seats it lost in 2018.

“I think there’s zero chance that they can take control of the House,” Carney added.

Democrats are currently nine seats short of the majority in the 150-member House, after picking up 12 in 2018. Some Democrats see as many as 34 seats on the November battlefield — the 12 seats that they won two years ago and now have to defend, and 22 other pickup opportunities. Abbott’s campaign has zeroed in on 24 districts. Ten of those are held by Democratic freshmen, 10 are represented by GOP incumbents and four are open seats in battleground territory.

Across those 24 districts, Abbott’s campaign is appealing to 1,030,000 voters who Carney described as “either Abbott supporters or high-likelihood swing voters.” The campaign has already been targeting that group of voters with digital ads touting Abbott’s candidate endorsements, with mentions of specific issues that poll well in each district.

Apparently, that includes going after Beto O’Rourke and tying Dem candidates to him because there was a poll that suggested Beto was less popular than other statewide figures. I mean, with all the money coming in to support Democrats – there’s even more now – and with Abbott being basically Fort Knox and also needing to mend some fences with other Republicans, this was going to happen. Money is a necessary requirement to run a fully-functional modern campaign, but it is not sufficient.

Keep fighting, fellas

Primal scream time.

Two of Texas’ top Republicans took part [last] Saturday in a protest of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus restrictions outside the Governor’s Mansion, a striking display of intraparty defiance three days before early voting begins for a momentous November election.

The “Free Texas” rally featured speeches from Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both of whom invoked the governor critically. At one point, Miller turned toward the mansion with a message for Abbott.

“Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” Miller said.

West, who took over the party in July and has been an open critic of some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions, read a resolution that the State Republican Executive Committee passed last month. The resolution tells Abbott: “No Exceptions, No Delays….Open Texas NOW.”

“We call upon the governor to do what is right by the people of the great state of Texas so that Texas can continue to be a leader,” West added. “And if the governor did not get this resolution, I’m gonna leave it right here, at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion.”

The protest drew at least 200 people, a virtually maskless crowd, to a parking lot steps away from the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin. After hearing from a lineup of speakers that also included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, the group marched on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the mansion, chanting, “Open Texas now!”

The audience was filled with signs expressing disgust at Abbott’s decisions to institute a statewide mask mandate and shut down certain businesses throughout the pandemic. One sign called Abbott the “#1 Job Killer in Texas,” while another called to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO.”

I’ve been sitting on this for a few days in part because there’s so damn much other news that I’ve not been able to fit it in, and in part because it’s hard to add anything to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO”. But we carry on.

West’s criticism of Abbott’s pandemic decisions has fueled speculation that he could run against the governor in 2022. As West prepared to start speaking at the rally, there were a couple chants of “West for governor!” which he sought to brush off, saying, “Oh, stop it, stop it, stop it.” Then there was another chant that drew cheers, prompting West to shake his head lightheartedly.

“Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads,” he said jokingly.

The idea of a carpetbagger like Allen West being a serious primary challenger to Greg Abbott is bizarre, to say the least, but we live in strange times. I do at this point believe someone will challenge Abbott in the primary, but who that might be and how seriously it will be taken remains unclear. Maybe this was Sid Miller’s audition for the job – he’s dumb enough to think he can do it, and clownish enough to appeal anyone who might think Allen West is some kind of savior. There’s plenty of room for this to get dumber, of that I’m certain. Dan Patrick as ever is the wild card, and likely the one Republican than Abbott actually fears. I don’t have any predictions – even if I did, it would be ridiculous to make them this far in advance – but I sure am interested in seeing how this plays out. We have a super consequential legislative session coming up, with redistricting and coronavirus and executive power and who knows what else that will dominate. How much does this kind of dissension affect Republican plans, or can they pull it together enough to support the things they all are supposed to like? Would a Dem Speaker remind them all of their real opponent? I don’t know, but these are the things I’ll be thinking about.

Texas, the “We don’t want you to vote” state

And by “We” I mean “Republicans”.

In five states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, new policies allow all voters to use COVID-19 as an excuse to mail in their ballots. In Iowa, the Republican secretary of state sent absentee ballot applications for the November election to every active, registered voter. And in Mississippi, one of the few states not offering universal absentee voting this year, Republican state leaders extended the deadline to receive mail ballots.

Republican lawmakers across the country, including those in battleground states with tight Senate races, have lifted restrictions and defied President Donald Trump’s unfounded warnings of mail-in voter fraud by expanding the practice, in an attempt to prevent the coronavirus from spreading at polling sites.

And then there is Texas, one of five states where voters cannot use fear of COVID-19 to vote by mail, one of 10 without widespread online voter registration and one of two without either option. Top Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, have made a series of moves they say are necessary to protect election integrity — but that also make it harder for Texans to cast ballots.

Democrats have condemned the actions as thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression designed to prevent them from winning control of the Texas House and delivering the state’s 38 electoral college votes to their presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

Republicans wave off those assertions, noting the expanded voting policies sought by Democrats were not implemented in prior election cycles. And they point to Abbott’s decisions to add a week of in-person early voting and let voters drop off mail ballots before Election Day — though the governor later undercut the latter move by limiting each county to one drop-off site, forcing Harris County to close 11 and prompting accusations of voter suppression from Democrats and lawsuits from civil rights groups.

“There’s no question that the intent behind these moves is to cause there to be fewer Democrats voting,” said Joseph Fishkin, an elections expert at the University of Texas School of Law. “You want to call that voter suppression, I think that’s not unreasonable.”

I’m not sure what else you’d call it if the intent is indeed to make it harder to vote, but whatever. I’ve hit on these themes before, and I’ll repeat them here, because there are two basic facts we have to keep in mind. One is that if the Republicans felt confident that they were the majority, they would not feel the need to compulsively push to restrict the vote. It’s not just the things we’ve seen this year, it’s the resistance to online voter registration, it’s everything about the voter ID law, it’s the fanatical insistence that vote fraud – exclusively by people who don’t vote for them, of course – is rampant, and so on and so forth. They fear that if it were easy and convenient to vote, they’d lose. Donald Trump says it out loud, but their actions have been saying it just as loudly for much longer.

And two, the only way out of this is through it. That means overcoming all the obstacles and winning enough elections to be able to pass laws that will reform and repeal these laws. The courts won’t save us – indeed, considering the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS, the courts will be another obstacle to overcome. It’s not just this year – we cannot begin to make real progress until we win statewide elections, and that means making an even bigger push in 2022. It’s not just about winning the elections, too – it’s about putting pressure on the leaders we elect to enact the reforms we demand and deserve. This is a long haul, and there will be setbacks along the way. But it is the way, and there’s no going around it. Remember this, and use it to push for the changes we need.

30 Day 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 4

Last but not least, here are the 30-day finance reports from the 10 non-Houston-area seats that Dems flipped in 2018, plus four others of interest. Part One of my stroll through the 30-day finance reports, for statewide, SBOE, and State Senate candidates, is here. Part Two, with State House races from the Houston area, is here. Part Three, for the other House races of interest, is here. The July reports for these candidates can be found here. Let’s do this.

Ryan Guillen, HD31
Marian Knowlton, HD31

Abel Herrero, HD34
James Hernandez, HD34

Erin Zwiener, HD45
Carrie Isaac, HD45

Vikki Goodwin, HD47
Justin Berry, HD47

James Talarico, HD52
Lucio Valdez, HD52

Michelle Beckley, HD65
Kronda Thimesch, HD65

Eddie Morales, HD74
Ruben Falcon, HD74

Ana-Maria Ramos, HD102
Linda Koop, HD102

Terry Meza, HD105
Gerson Hernandez, HD105

Victoria Neave, HD107
Samuel Smith, HD107

Rhetta Bowers, HD113
Will Douglas, HD113

John Turner, HD114
Luisa Del Rosal, HD114

Julie Johnson, HD115
Karyn Brownlee, HD115

John Bucy, HD136
Mike Guevara, HD136


Dist   Candidate       Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD31   Guillen         70,625    24,066          0     493,094
HD31   Knowlton        14,390    11,515          0      13,391

HD34   Herrero         95,325    80,201          0     240,175
HD34   Hernandez       19,546    12,865          0      23,441

HD45   Zwiener        417,524   154,920          0     169,357
HD45   Isaac          227,503   104,256          0     155,094

HD47   Goodwin        134,569    66,855     13,000     201,970
HD47   Berry          446,275   106,578          0      75,601

HD52   Talarico       147,900    73,299          0     191,497
HD52   Valdez         157,845     4,683          0      18,519

HD65   Beckley        201,301    70,787          0     108,005
HD65   Thimesch       269,935    38,322     10,000     130,222

HD74   Morales         44,078     7,697    215,000      42,890
HD74   Falcon           2,300     2,224      5,000          75

HD102  Ramos          139,061    39,314        310      98,053
HD102  Koop           261,349    91,189          0      58,993

HD105  Meza            75,860    31,737          0      85,926
HD105  Hernandez       37,115    20,425      8,500      16,690

HD107  Neave           50,432    53,321          0      78,451
HD107  Smith           44,729    31,426      2,400      23,914

HD113  Bowers         180,175   114,854          0      74,693
HD113  Douglas        450,556   135,201          0     401,426

HD114  Turner         165,163   143,114      7,000     457,498
HD114  Del Rosal      398,601   183,323     10,000     268,392

HD115  Johnson        163,755    52,629          0     330,655
HD115  Brownlee        47,434     9,916     11,000      61,613

HD136  Bucy           109,468    87,022     46,375     109,579
HD136  Guevara         31,460    10,724      2,000       8,709

As before, we can confidently say that while all these districts are competitive on paper, some of these races are a lot more competitive than others, at least judging by the way candidates are raising (or not raising) money. A quick bullet-point recap:

– It’s not a surprise that none of HD31, HD34, nor HD74 are being seriously challenged. Republicans just have not made much effort in South Texas and the Valley, at least not at the State House level. I wouldn’t expect any of these races to be all that competitive, but HD74 is an open seat. If I were a Republican, I’d be annoyed by this.

Jennifer Fleck, who had a SPAC report as well as her personal report as of July, did not have a report for either that I could find as of yesterday. She didn’t have much to report in July, but she was in the primary runoff, so she had a reason to be starting at a lower point. This was the one Republican district in Travis County, and it had been won by a Republican every election except for 2006 and 2008 going all the way back to at least 1992 before Vikki Goodwin took it in the blue wave of 2018. I know that the Travis County Republican Party in particular is a dumpster fire, but still. It’s a bit mind-boggling that they’re not putting up much of a fight here.

UPDATE: I managed to have the wrong candidate here – Justin Berry defeated Jennifer Fleck in the primary runoff, and I just goofed on it. Berry has an impressive amount raised, but as you might guess, it’s mostly in kind – indeed, $294K of it is in kind. Still, this is real money being spent on him, so I take back everything I said about this district not being contested. My apologies for the error.

– My mind is also boggled at the thought of a freshman Democrat in Williamson County drawing such un-spirited opposition, but that’s where Rep. John Bucy is. Not a complaint, mind you, just a head-scratcher.

– Some day, when we can be together in person again, I hope to corral a Dallas political type and ply them with beer so they can explain to me why HD115 is essentially being ceded. To be fair, Julie Johnson won by thirteen points in 2018, but then John Turner won by eleven. I mean, I don’t expect Rep. Johnson to have been in any trouble, but again – freshman Rep, longtime Republican seat, and you have to have some belief in yourself. What I’m taking away from all this is that the Republicans for the most part just aren’t on offense all that much. It’s defense, defense, defense, with a few energetic challengers and the Associated Republicans of Texas PAC doing a lot of heavy lifting. And again, to be fair, they just need to limit their losses to stay in the Speaker’s seat and have redistricting all to themselves again. You’d just have thought – or at least, I clearly did – that they’d have had bigger ambitions than that.

– The rest are being challenged in a way one might expect, though as we have discussed before, some of those fundraising totals are misleading due to in kind contributions, which in this case is ART PAC money for the most part. Lucio Valdez only raised about $15K himself, and Linda Koop only raised $77K. Neither Carrie Isaac ($48K in kind) nor Kronda Thimesch ($166K in kind) had much cash on hand in July but have acquitted themselves well since then. The candidates themselves may not have raised all that much overall, but the money being spent on them is still money being spent on them. I feel generally confident about the Dem freshlings holding their seats, but there are definitely some races I’ll be keeping a closer eye on.

That wraps up my stroll through the state 30 day reports. I’ll have the Q3 Congressional reports next week – they’re only just now in the system. Let me know what you think.

30 Day 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 3

Moving on to the 30-day campaign finance reports for the hot State Rep races outside the Houston area. As noted, a lot of candidates have been reporting big hauls, as has the HDCC, the fundraising committee for State House Democrats. As you know, I have split these into four parts. Part one, with statewide, SBOE, and State Senate, is here. Part two, with State House races from the Houston area, is here. Part three is this post, and part four will be for Democratic incumbents that may be targeted. I’m not going to be doing every race of course, just the ones of interest. I did not do the January reports for these races as there were just too damn many of them, but the July reports for these candidates are here.

Janet Dudding, HD14
John Raney, HD14

Eric Holguin, HD32
Todd Hunter, HD32

Keke Williams, HD54
Brad Buckley, HD54

Angela Brewer, HD64
Lynn Stucky, HD64

Sharon Hirsch, HD66
Matt Shaheen, HD66

Lorenzo Sanchez, HD67
Jeff Leach, HD67

John Gibson, HD84
John Frullo, HD84

Ray Ash, HD89
Candy Noble, HD89

Jeff Whitfield, HD92
Jeff Cason, HD92

Lydia Bean, HD93
Matt Krause, HD93

Alisa Simmons, HD94
Tony Tinderholt, HD94

Joe Drago, HD96
David Cook, HD96

Elizabeth Beck, HD97
Craig Goldman, HD97

Jennifer Skidonenko, HD106
Jared Patterson, HD106

Joanna Cattanach, HD108
Morgan Meyer, HD108

Brandy Chambers, HD112
Angie Chen Button, HD112

Celina Montoya, HD121
Steve Allison, HD121


Dist  Candidate        Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD14   Dudding         42,842    32,648        782      26,806
HD14   Raney           97,966    54,748          0     151,707

HD32   Holguin         55,568    41,276          0      14,292
HD32   Hunter         121,555   367,428          0   1,889,407

HD54   Williams       336,235   132,484          0     164,094
HD54   Buckley        435,989    20,313     30,300     303,905

HD64   Brewer         361,767    46,208          0     274,953
HD64   Stucky         323,609    79,398          0     255,623

HD66   Hirsch         419,159   150,523          0     324,489
HD66   Shaheen        253,546    41,857    122,000     302,131

HD67   Sanchez        692,854   206,865          0     233,734
HD67   Leach          531,541   111,167          0     485,813

HD84   Gibson          12,339     8,486          0       8,419
HD84   Frullo          34,525    11,045          0     352,123

HD89   Ash              4,763     3,112     10,419       1,375
HD89   Noble           41,690     9,648    130,000     151,748

HD92   Whitfield      362,947   222,294     19,700     236,445
HD92   Cason          219,158   241,377      5,000       1,305

HD93   Bean           219,347    63,322          0     198,808
HD93   Krause         194,110   244,470          0     516,077

HD94   Simmons        184,169   103,134          0      76,662
HD94   Tinderholt     304,348   251,650          0      48,878

HD96   Drago          321,421   146,177          0     201,787
HD96   Cook           409,945   100,664          0     370,913

HD97   Beck           501,011   280,456          0     263,172
HD97   Goldman        196,361   424,645          0     636,186

HD106  Skidonenko      53,210    50,246      1,635      15,862
HD106  Patterson       47,529    23,342          0     118,921

HD108  Cattanach      463,416   174,579          0     334,465
HD108  Meyer          565,760   183,019          0     647,878

HD112  Chambers       533,343   319,804          0     216,982
HD112  Button         512,117    83,976          0     953,840

HD121  Montoya        442,962   120,219          0     325,985
HD121  Allison        494,527   123,631    235,000     222,336

The difference between the races that are being seriously contested as a part of the State House takeover effort and those than are not is pretty clear. I would have liked to see more of an investment in Janet Dudding and Eric Holguin and Jennifer Skidonenko, but that’s not the direction that was taken. I admit they’re longer shots than the others, and they’ve done all right by themselves. We’ll see if we look at any of them as missed opportunities. As for John Gibson and Ray Ash, I’m probably the only person outside their immediate circle that has tracked them this closely. I see those districts, or at least those parts of the state, as future opportunities. May as well place the marker now.

As noted before, there’s a lot of in kind contributions on these reports, which tend to be campaign activity financed by the respective parties’ legislative PACs, Associated Republicans of Texas and the House Democratic Campaign Committee (HDCC). In some cases, like with Brad Buckley in HD54, this activity is most if not all of what is happening. One presumes Buckley would have spent more than $20K on his own re-election if that hadn’t been covered by the ART. You really have to look at the individual reports to get a feel for who’s being bolstered the most and who’s mostly pulling their own weight.

On that latter point, some of the decisions that I presume the committees are making are fascinating. Craig Goldman and Matt Krause were both sitting on a bunch of cash in July, so it makes sense that they were mostly doing their own spending. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button were also loaded as of July, and yet both had over $200K spent on them. Maybe that represents a desire to keep at least one Republican State Rep in Dallas County, I don’t know. Like I said, these decisions are fascinating, and as someone viewing them from the outside, all I can do is speculate.

On the other side of that coin, Tony Tinderholt (running for re-election) and Jeff Cason (defending an open seat) had to spend themselves down to paltry levels, for reasons not fully clear to me. I get that even for state Republicans, the money isn’t infinite, but you’d think that you wouldn’t want to leave guys like that so exposed as we’re getting down to the wire. I’m open to suggestions as to what’s up with that.

Kudos to Lorenzo Sanchez, Elizabeth Beck, and Brandy Chambers for really hitting it out of the park, with Celina Montoya, Joanna Cattanach, and Sharon Hirsch right behind them. All of the Dem challengers are at least within parity of the Republicans, and that’s about all you can ask.

I don’t know how seriously to take this, but there was some polling of competitive districts, reported by Reform Austin, which includes a number of these candidates. Make of it as you will.

One more of these to come, looking at the targeted Dem legislators. I’ll have the Congressional finance reports next week. Let me know what you think.

30 Day 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 2

Continuing to look at the 30-day campaign finance reports. A lot of candidates have been reporting big hauls, especially in the hot State Rep races. As before, I will split these into four parts. Part one, with statewide, SBOE, and State Senate, is here. Part two is State House races from the Houston area, which is this post. Part three will be State House races from elsewhere in the state, and part four will be for Democratic incumbents that may be targeted. I’m not going to be doing every race of course, just the ones of interest. January reports for Harris County State House races are here, and the July reports for these candidates are here.

Martin Shupp, HD03
Cecil Bell, HD03

Lorena McGill, HD15
Steve Toth, HD15

Jeff Antonelli, HD23
Mayes Middleton, HD23

Brian Rogers, HD24
Greg Bonnen, HD24

Patrick Henry, HD25
Cody Vasut, HD25

Sarah DeMerchant, HD26
Jacey Jetton, HD26

Eliz Markowitz, HD28
Gary Gates, HD28

Travis Boldt, HD29
Ed Thompson, HD29

Joe Cardenas, HD85
Phil Stephenson, HD85

Natali Hurtado, HD126
Sam Harless, HD126

Kayla Alix, HD129
Dennis Paul, HD129

Gina Calanni, HD132
Mike Schofield, HD132

Sandra Moore, HD133
Jim Murphy, HD133

Ann Johnson, HD134
Sarah Davis, HD134

Jon Rosenthal, HD135
Justin Ray, HD135

Akilah Bacy, HD138
Lacey Hull, HD138


Dist   Candidate       Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD03   Shupp              305       618          0         305
HD03   Bell            12,400    14,708     82,140      16,924

HD15   McGill          27,474    23,342          0      12,161
HD15   Toth            38,615    18,138          0      40,889

HD23   Antonelli       10,889     5,393          0       5,495
HD23   Middleton      318,855    85,129    500,000     317,001

HD24   Rogers             455       240          0       1,170
HD24   Bonnen          47,466    70,626    450,000     541,745

HD25   Henry            3,010     5,355          0       1,775
HD25   Vasut           37,245    23,251      1,600       1,865

HD26   DeMerchant     322,433    94,227          0      90,146
HD26   Jetton         295,526    26,240     25,000      91,922

HD28   Markowitz      108,038    55,813          0      68,241
HD28   Gates          374,629   371,476  1,736,100      67,328

HD29   Boldt           59,421    18,253          0      40,635
HD29   Thompson       106,896   148,176          0     344,974

HD85   Cardenas        14,731     7,872      5,027       2,830
HD85   Stephenson      12,375    22,403     29,791      24,691

HD126  Hurtado        311,139   107,738          0     210,474
HD126  Harless        449,290    53,893     20,000     290,216

HD129  Alix            43,480     7,991          0      35,568
HD129  Paul            72,400    45,052    156,000      45,875

HD132  Calanni        308,292    75,081          0     235,006
HD132  Schofield      252,100    65,647          0      98,339

HD133  Moore           10,976    11,207          0       9,593
HD133  Murphy         140,000    89,105          0     586,798

HD134  Johnson        481,430   292,265          0     314,593
HD134  Davis          597,463    93,842          0     299,564

HD135  Rosenthal      206,564   111,248          0     110,589
HD135  Ray            418,811   126,810          0      52,800

HD138  Bacy           630,565    99,967          0     353,811
HD138  Hull           277,421    45,612          0      84,768

First things first, I had the wrong Republican listed for HD26 last time. Just a goof on my part, which is now corrected.

Also, as a reminder, when there’s a big disparity between the money raised and spent, and the cash on hand, look for a significant amount of in kind donations. A lot of the contributions to Mike Schofield, Justin Ray (nearly $300K in his case), and Lacey Hull are expenditures on their behalf by PACs like Associated Republicans on Texas. Some of this spending is quite visible – I’ve seen many ads for Hull and Ray (mostly Hull) on cable, mostly during sporting events. Some of that is wasted since I don’t live anywhere near either of their districts, but I’m sure people in those district did see them.

The main action outside of Harris County is in HD26, where both Sarah DeMerchant and Jacey Jetton. Both of them also had large in kind totals – $107K for deMerchant, mostly from the HDCC, and $170K for Jetton, again mostly from the ART. Eliz Markowitz raised a decent amount, and I give Lorena McGill and A for effort in her deep red district. The one candidate I wish had done better is Travis Boldt. HD29 is not a must-have to win the House, but it’s in a part of Brazoria County that’s been trending blue, and I feel like it’s worth the investment. Maybe something will happen in the 8 day reporting period. On the Republican side, Phil Stephenson has it in cruise control, and so far his anti-Abbott apostasy hasn’t been particularly lucrative yet for Steve Toth.

Natali Hurtado has another strong report, putting her a the top of the class among Democratic challengers to incumbents. Sam Harless is taking that challenge seriously. None of the longer-shot candidates have raised enough to change perceptions.

Gina Calanni and Jon Rosenthal have done well, though Rosenthal was outgunned by the PAC money that boosted Justin Ray. Sarah Davis bounced back from her unimpressive July report but still trails Ann Johnson in cash on hand. Akilah Bacy ($212K in kind) had the big report of the period. I have seen one pro-Bacy ad so far – I mostly watch sports on live TV, so maybe she’s got some running on other channels, who knows – and at least one anti-Bacy attack ad to go along with the Lacey Hull ads. I’ve seen a few Rosenthal ads as well, not as many as the Ray ads, but not too far behind. I’ve not seen any ads for Johnson or Davis, though I’m closer to HD134 than either 135 or 138. Maybe better targeting, or they’re not doing TV, or just not advertising where I’m watching. Have you seen any ads for any of these races?

More races from around the state coming next. Let me know what you think.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Endorsement watch: For MJ

The Chron changes its course in the US Senate race.

MJ Hegar

For 18 years, John Cornyn has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate with dignity, decorum and a legislative work ethic that has made him one of the more productive, and often bipartisan, lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

He’s championed criminal justice reform, stood up for trade with Mexico, stood against President Trump’s child-separation policy and passed major bills tackling sex trafficking and other complex threats to American welfare. Most recently he worked with Texas’ full delegation to send billions in aid following Hurricane Harvey and, when that money got snagged by bureaucracy, he helped to get it flowing.

“I work with people on a daily basis to pass legislation who I know get up in the morning trying to figure out how they can defeat me in my next election,” he told the editorial board in an hour-long interview last week. “… But you do what you can where you can.”

In an ordinary year, that might have been enough to endorse him for a fourth term, as we did for a third in 2014.

But in this year, in these deadly and divisive times, it is not enough. Not nearly. As a result, we heartily endorse Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan where she earned a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, to become Texas’ next senator.

We find Hegar’s mix of energy, moral clarity, and assertive pragmatism invigorating.

“I just want our country to live up to the ideals for which it stands,” Hegar, 44, told us in an interview last week, vowing to put some “function” back into the Senate.

[…]

What weighed most heavily in our decision to urge voters to embrace Hegar is our veteran senator’s failure to lead.

From 2013 to 2019, he was the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate and yet has been almost uniformly silent as the party he represents has been steered off course by the tea party insurgency beginning in 2010, and more recently has been completely unmoored by Trump.

Cornyn told us he distinguishes between Trump the man — with his divisive and dishonest rhetoric — and Trump the president, whose policies Cornyn said he appreciates. We’ll grant that conservatives cheered Trump’s success in cutting taxes, even if primarily on businesses and wealthy individuals, and the remarkable pace with which he’s pushed the federal judiciary farther to the right.

But on issue after issue, Trump has conducted himself in ways that Cornyn surely agrees are damaging to the presidency, to our nation’s standing in the world, and to the institutions that safeguard our democracy, including Congress itself.

[…]

Texas needs a leader who would make that speech, rally allies, and press for legislation that is morally right, even if it means having to irritate the party bosses.

In response, Cornyn points to former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who clashed with Trump only to see his career derailed. What good for Texas, he asks, could a senator do once sidelined by the president or the party?

But preserving one’s clout is only sound strategy if that clout is eventually used. We see very little evidence Cornyn has used it. After 18 years, Texans are entitled to ask — if not now, then when?

In between those last two segments is a long airing of grievances against Trump, and Cornyn’s lily-livered response to them, culminating in his stated willingness to bring up a stand-alone bill to help the Dreamers but not actually doing it because Mitch McConnell would ignore him. You can compare this to their endorsement of Dan Crenshaw and mumble something about different standards for different folks, but at least here there’s asking the right questions. I’ll take it.

The Chron also endorsed a bunch of legislative incumbents, the most interesting of which being Rep. Gina Calanni.

Rep. Gina Calanni

Voters in Texas House District 132 have a luxury that residents in most other districts don’t: A choice between two experienced legislators on the Nov. 3 ballot.

State Rep. Gina Calanni, 42, has served with distinction in her first term, which she won narrowly two years ago. And her opponent, Republican Mike Schofield, is the lawmaker she drove out of office after two terms.

He’s back for a rematch and at stake is how the district, which includes much of Katy and unincorporated areas of Harris County, will be represented in Austin, where Republican control of the House is no longer assured.

We believe voters got it right in 2018, and recommend they retain Calanni this year.

It’s been a mostly incumbent-friendly endorsement season, Hegar over Cornyn notwithstanding. Calanni’s been a hard worker who did all the things she said she’d do when she ran, as she noted in the interview with the ed board. She’s got the toughest road to re-election, having won by a tiny margin in 2018, but she’s done the job, and this is at least as favorable an environment as 2018 was. I like her chances.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s so much more money in Texas races

Item one:

It’s the question that many, many people have raised — often as a joke — for years. But the combination of changing demographics, chaos among the state Republican ranks, and the ongoing struggles of President Donald Trump’s campaign have led some to re-examine this question. Among them are the Republicans behind the anti-Trump PAC The Lincoln Project, betting that this is the year — and they’re putting a $1 million chip on the table to start.

Tuesday, the Lincoln Project announced that they were launching a $1 million ad buy in the Lone Star State, chiefly targeting hundreds of thousands of suburban and rural Republican women and Hispanics, voters whom they believe can be persuaded to vote against Trump.

The current buy is digital only, geotargeted in areas around the state ranging from rural counties like Lubbock, urban neighborhoods in Austin, and the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

“We can more easily and effectively target the specific group of individuals we are trying to target digitally than we can with TV,” Ryan Wiggins, the PAC’s senior adviser for communications, told Mediaite. Wiggins added that they were considering expanding to television and mail in the final weeks before the election, and this $1 million investment was just an initial buy, planned to cover a week’s worth of digital ad placements.

The ads will include some of the PAC’s previous videos, like the viral “Mourning in America,” as well as new Texas-specific content, including some that will be in Spanish.

Wiggins and others associated with the Lincoln Project were optimistic that not only would they be dropping more cash into Texas, but that they had a real chance to move the needle.

It’s a long story, so go give it a read. Whatever you think of the Lincoln Project, this looks like a good investment.

Item two:

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign is set to spend millions of dollars on TV ads in Texas as polls continue to show a close race in the state.

The former vice president’s campaign announced earlier this year that it would make TV reservations this fall in Texas, and as of Tuesday, it had booked more than $6 million through Election Day, according to the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

“This is historic. That shows you just how important Texas is to them and it shows that Texas is in play,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “It shows you their investment in Texas is real.” Rahman noted that Biden’s spending is the biggest investment from a Democratic presidential nominee in the last 25 years and is a drastic change from 2016, when then- nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t spend seriously in the state.

[…]

As speculation has swirled about the extent of Biden’s investment in the state, the Texas Democratic Party has been ramping up its advertising. On Tuesday, the party announced a digital, print and radio campaign aimed at Black voters in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and East Texas. The party described the size of the effort as “high six figure(s).”

We can certainly debate about the effectiveness of this approach versus others, the need to be engaged on a more consistent basis, and so forth. All I know is, we are not used to seeing this kind of investment.

Item three:

The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee has raised over $3.6 million in just under three months, a massive cash infusion as the party pushes to take control of the lower chamber for the first time since 2002.

The $3.6 million haul, which came between July 1 and Sept. 24, is more than double the $1.6 million that the committee raised in the first six months of the year. That in itself was a committee record at the time, exceeding its total fundraising for the entire 2018 election cycle.

“Affordable healthcare, economic security, and a plan to deal with COVID-19 are on the ballot, and achieving those goals starts with flipping the Texas House,” the HDCC’s chairwoman, Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, said in an announcement of the committee’s latest fundraising that was first shared with The Texas Tribune. “That has been our mission from day one, and donors have responded in a big way.”

The HDCC said the $3.6 million came from 4,165 donors, 98% of whom donated online. Over three-quarters of contributions were less than $100, and roughly four out of five donations came from Texans.

[…]

Andrew Reagan, the committee’s executive director, said the money is going toward ensuring that battleground campaigns have “robustly funded paid communications,” including TV and digital ads, as well as direct mail. Some candidates are already running ads that are jointly funded by their campaigns and the HDCC.

The committee did not immediately disclose its cash-on-hand figure, but Reagan said it is “healthily in the seven figures.”

That’s in addition to some eye-popping numbers raised by various other candidates, including $13.5 million for MJ Hegar. The 30-day reports for state candidates is out now, I’ll be reviewing those in the coming days, and then of course I’ll have the Q3 Congressional reports. Remember when all this stuff was boring and perfunctory? Those days are gone.

And to be sure, some of that money is for the bad guys, as we see in Item four:

Outside money is flooding battleground Texas House races across the Houston area, helping Republican candidates erase fundraising advantages amassed by Democrats who are raking in money from individual donors outside Texas.

In all seven battleground districts around Houston, five of which are under GOP control, Democrats raised more cash than Republicans from early July through late September, the period covered by the latest round of campaign finance reports.

However, spending by political action committees and other groups favored Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin in those districts, helping three candidates — Republican Justin Ray, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, and state Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring — overcome their fundraising deficits.

[…]

During the 12-week period covered by the campaign finance reports filed earlier this week, the 14 candidates in Houston’s seven battleground House districts combined to raise nearly $4.7 million and spend almost $1.6 million. They collectively are heading into the stretch run of the 2020 election with about $2.4 million cash on hand, with millions more set to come from outside groups.

Two longtime political donor groups, Associated Republicans of Texas and tort reform advocacy group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, have particularly escalated their spending on House Republican candidates in 2020, combining to buy $276,000 worth of digital ads, direct mail, canvassing and other expenses to support Ray and another $272,000 on behalf of Davis.

Democrat Ann Johnson, an attorney who is challenging Davis, outpaced the incumbent in fundraising from individual donors. Committees and other groups spent about $525,000 backing Davis, however, helping her rack up more than $597,000 in contributions to Johnson’s roughly $481,000.

A similar dynamic played out last reporting period in the west Houston district where Ray, the former mayor of Jersey Village, is attempting to unseat state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston. Though Rosenthal raised more cash than Ray, the challenger benefited from a massive lead in spending from committees and other groups, giving him a 2-to-1 edge in overall contributions.

And in northwest Harris County, groups including the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on legislatures around the country, and Leading Texas Forward, a PAC run by House Republican lawmakers, helped Harless make up a fundraising deficit to Democrat Natali Hurtado.

Best way to deal with all that money is beat the candidates it was supporting, so that it was all wasted. Feels really satisfying, too.

Interview with Rep. Christina Morales

Rep. Christina Morales

I have focused mostly on Congressional candidates in my limited series of November interviews, but I did several State House races for the primary – Akilah Bacy in HD138, Ann Johnson in HD134, Sarah DeMerchant in HD26 – and I realized that one important person that I had not yet interviewed was my own State Rep, Christina Morales. She was elected in a special election in HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado got a promotion to the upper chamber (an opening made possible by Rep. Sylvia Garcia’s election to Congress), and is now running for her first full term. She grew up in the East End neighborhood she now represents, and is the President an CEO of the Morales Funeral Home, a small business founded by her grandparents in 1931. I confess that I had not thought about this going into the interview, but that’s a revealing window into the effect of COVID-19 on many people, especially in the Latino community. That comes up a few times in our conversation, which you can listen to here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08
Sima Ladjevardian, CD02

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

Bexar County poll: Biden 52, Trump 35

From the San Antonio Report:

The new Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a sizable lead over President Donald Trump among registered Bexar County voters.

Poll results released Tuesday, two weeks before early voting begins, found 52 percent of Bexar County voters support Biden while 35 percent back Trump. In 2016, Bexar County voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by 14 percentage points.

[…]

Pollster David Metz, whose firm conducted the Bexar Facts survey of 619 registered Bexar County voters Sept. 12-21, noted that age, race, and gender – in addition to party affiliation – play roles in determining whom voters support for the presidency. Voters under 50 said they will vote for Biden at a 2-to-1 margin, while 48 percent of voters age 65 and over are voting Trump, with 8 percent of senior citizens undecided.

Sixty-three percent of local voters of color said they supported Biden, and 49 percent of whites said they would vote for Trump. Ten percent of white voters were undecided or indicated support for another candidate. Fourteen percent of voters of color were undecided or indicated another candidate.

Only 27 percent of women said they would vote for Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence. Meanwhile, 64 percent favored Biden, whose running mate is California Sen. Kamala Harris.

The Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll also asked voters about other items on the November ballot, including propositions concerning use of sales tax revenue to fund Pre-K 4 SA, a workforce development initiative, and mass transit.

The latest poll surveyed individuals online and by phone (both landlines and cellphones) in English and Spanish. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level, which is typical of large community polls.

The Bexar Facts website hosts the poll data, which they have annoyingly broken up into a million individual posts about each question, all presented as graphics with text you can see when you hover your mouse over the graph item. For the record, Biden leads Trump 52-35 in Bexar County, with 13% in the “don’t know/no answer” column. As noted, Hillary Clinton won Bexar County 54.2 to 40.8 in 2016, so Biden is ahead of that pace. On a proportional basis, Biden is leading by a bit more than 60-40, though if you allocate the independents (Biden leads 42-30 among indies) that make up nearly all of the “DK/NA” respondents, you get 59-41 for Biden. In 2018, Beto took Bexar County 59.5 to 39.6, so Biden is just a hair behind that pace in this poll. In other words, this is consistent with Biden trailing statewide by two or three points.

There was also a question about the Senate race, and in Bexar County MJ Hegar leads John Cornyn 49-38, again with 13% answering “don’t know” or “no answer”. This is consistent with Hegar lagging Biden by a couple of points statewide, though as we have often discussed, that may be a function of lower name ID, which may come out in the wash when people are presented with the basic partisan choice. I stand by my belief that Hegar probably needs Biden to carry Texas for her to have a chance at winning.

I should note that the poll has some basic demographic subtotals. Biden leads Trump 60-25 among Latino voters, and 96-3 among Black voters. White voters go for Trump by a 49-41 margin, much smaller than his lead has been statewide in other polls. For Hegar, it’s 55-27 among Latinos, 89-7 among Blacks, and 54-39 for Cornyn among whites.

Biden’s margin of victory in Bexar County will have an effect on several key races, including CD21 (Chip Roy beat Joe Kopser in Bexar County 49.9 to 48.3, less than 2000 votes, in 2018), CD23 (Will Hurd beat Gina Ortiz Jones 51.1 to 46.8, but in 2016 he had defeated Pete Gallego 53.5 to 40.9), SD19, SBOE5, and HD121. If Jones in CD23 and Wendy Davis in CD21 can break even in Bexar, I feel pretty good about their chances.

SCOTX hears mail ballot case arguments

Here we are.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

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

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

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

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

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

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: Carol and Borris

This is another easy call.

Sen, Carol Alvarado

When Carol Alvarado was elected to represent state Senate District 6 in a special election in 2018, she already had an impressive record under her belt.

After serving on Houston City Council and as the city’s mayor pro tem, she was elected in 2008 to the Texas House of Representatives to represent District 145. She was appointed chair of the Urban Affairs Committee and worked with Republican colleagues to get bills passed, including a 2015 grand jury reform bill that became law.

In her freshman term as a state senator, Alvarado has continued that run.

She co-sponsored 32 bills, 29 of which became law. The legislation ranged from a bill requiring insurance companies to cover diagnostic mammograms to one that gives every student the option of having an ECG heart screening as part of his or her athletic physical exam.

[…]

Alvarado, 52, whose opponent in the race is Libertarian Timothy Duffield, told the editorial board Medicaid expansion will be her top goal in the 2021 Legislature.

That’s an especially worthy goal during the current economic downturn as thousands lose employer-sponsored insurance. We strongly recommend Alvarado for State Senate District 6.

I think in a year where there are a lot of races to endorse in, it’s all right to skip the ones like this where there’s no major party opponent. But even if you do that, Sen. Alvarado would be an obvious choice. She’s done everything you’d want her to do as your Senator.

This one is a bit more nuanced.

Sen. Borris Miles

Outside the Legislature, state Sen. Borris Miles can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble.

The list of scandals include his indictment (and acquittal) over charges of deadly conduct after he allegedly pulled a gun and threatened the host of a holiday party in 2007, his threatening to “beat up” a plainclothes DPS trooper who was protecting Attorney General Ken Paxton in 2015, reports by the Chronicle in 2016 that he repeatedly failed to disclose his business interests in three companies as state law requires, and a 2017 Daily Beast piece that detailed sexual harassment accusations.

His constituents, first in House District 146 and now in Senate District 13, have found none of these allegations disqualifying, sending Miles back to Austin year after year. They have been rewarded with a solid Democratic lawmaker who represents the interests of a region that cuts across Harris County and includes neighborhoods such as Sunnyside, East End, Greater Fifth Ward and International District.

[…]

His opponent, Republican Milinda Morris, is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist and U.S. Air Force veteran. She opposes abortion rights, and supports unrestricted gun carry and school vouchers. In recommending her in the GOP primary last March, we praised her support for public health and openness to expanding Medicaid.

Based on his troubling pattern of behavior, we believe voters can do better than Miles and have twice endorsed his primary opponents. But in this race, his track record in the Legislature and the fact that his positions are far more in sync with his district than his opponent’s make him the best choice on Election Day.

For what it’s worth, the most recent allegation the Chron cites is from 2017, so perhaps Sen. Miles has been keeping himself out of trouble lately. But maybe it’s just not making the news right now.

One could draw a parallel, in terms of unbecoming behavior, from Sen. Miles to Rep. Briscoe Cain, whom the Chron declined to endorse. Cain is also in sync with his district, as I noted. I would argue that Sen. Miles has an actual record of accomplishment, in the House as well as the Senate, while Rep. Cain is basically a whoopie cushion with a Twitter account (when it hasn’t been suspended for making threats, anyway). Again, though, one might claim that he’s just doing what the people in his district voted for him to do. If one is sympathetic to Rep. Cain’s viewpoint, I can understand how one might conclude that the main difference is that the Chron mostly agrees with Sen. Miles on the issues, and as that is the case that’s why the Chron is mostly endorsing Democrats (these days, anyway). I doubt I could persuade you otherwise.

The people responded to the call for poll workers

In Harris County, bigtime.

Muhammed Nasrullah was ready to call it quits. After working as an election judge in every Harris County contest since 2004, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged the 67-year-old retired mechanical engineer from signing up again.

He is in a high-risk age group, and he knew friends who had contracted the virus. Then he began to read news stories about a nationwide shortage of poll workers during the pandemic. And he was worried that delays in the U.S. Postal Service have undermined the public’s trust in mail ballots.

In such a consequential election Nov. 3, with record turnout expected in Harris County, Nasrullah decided he would serve again.

“I convinced myself that the election is so important that I’m willing to take the risk,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing my civic duty, and it’s a good feeling.”

He is one of 11,000 poll workers Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins hopes to recruit this year, twice as many as in 2016. Hollins’ ambitious $27.2 million election plan includes nearly tripling the number of early voting sites and an 8 percent increase in poll locations on Election Day. He needs an army of poll workers to staff them.

The clerk’s office in August launched an aggressive social media campaign to recruit workers, and Hollins recorded a commercial.

By this week, 29,000 applications had arrived.

Rachelle Obakozuwa, polling locations and recruitment manager for the clerk’s office, attributed part of the increased interest to many residents believing the November presidential election is especially important.

“And for another, people really need work because of COVID and a lot of layoffs,” Obakozuwa said. “We’re seeing both equally.”

Pay was also a factor – poll workers are receiving $17 per hour for their work, nearly double the $9 per hour they got in 2016. Decent pay for meaningful work, who knew that would be attractive to so many? They – and we – can thank Diane Trautman for upping their pay.

Fuentes is one of more than 100 student clerks Harris County recruited from Houston-area schools. As they often are more tech-savvy than older workers, Obakozuwa said one of the students’ tasks will be to update the clerk’s wait time app for polling places.

That task will be crucial to ensuring a smooth experience for residents, as the clerk’s office estimates each voter will spend far longer in the booth this year because of the elimination of straight-ticket voting. The hours-long lines to vote at some locations in the March primary election were partly blamed on a failure of poll workers to update the app, leading voters to visit sites that already were crowded.

Under the Texas Election Code, counties do not hire most poll workers directly. Rather, county clerks recruit and train poll workers, who are selected by the Democratic and Republican election judges at each polling site.

The loss of straight ticket voting may turn out not to be a concern, but until the Fifth Circuit speaks, it’s too soon to say. Be that as it may, my first thought when I saw this story was “Gosh, I sure hope other counties are this successful at getting poll workers”. But other counties may not be paying as well, or may not be able to pay as well. That’s an inequity situation if so, because it shouldn’t be the case that voting is easier and more accessible in one place due to financial constraints. This is another thing that could be addressed by the Legislature, by mandating a minimum level of pay and a minimum number of poll workers per location and locations per county, and allocating the money to cover costs above a certain level for each county so they can comply. I’m being overly simplistic here, but the point I’m making is that the state could be doing what Harris County has done this year, which is spend the money necessary to improve access to voting. I think we all know what will be required for that to happen. I’m just saying it’s something we can work to make happen.

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.

Endorsement watch: Three more for the Lege

In numerical order…

Rep. Jon Rosenthal, HD135:

Rep. Jon Rosenthal

As a political novice Jon E. Rosenthal pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 2018 when he knocked off 12-term Republican Rep. Gary Elkins to win the state House District 135 seat in what turned out to be a big year for Democrats.

The 57-year-old mechanical engineer has since proved to be an able legislator, willing to work across party lines to get things done for his district and the state. He also appears refreshingly free of the conflicts of interest that plagued his predecessor’s time in the state house.

We recommend that voters in this west Harris County district give Rosenthal another term.

[…]

Rosenthal was named Freshman of the Year by the Legislative Study Group, a nonpartisan caucus that “focuses on developing mainstream solutions and advancing sound public policy that benefits all Texans.”

He was a co-author of the bipartisan House Bill 2195, which was signed into law and mandates Texas schools to have refined emergency plans.

Rosenthal said he was especially proud of helping open access roads surrounding the construction of the Texas 6 bridge over U.S. 290 in response to businesses worried about losing customers.

Voters were smart to entrust the seat to Rosenthal and they’d be smart to do it again.

Rep. Rosenthal has some serious Scott Hochberg energy around him, by which I mean he’s really smart, understands complicated technical subjects, and is just a genuine, down-to-earth guy. Swapping him in for Gary Elkins was one of the biggest upgrades the Lege has had in awhile.

Rep. Gene Wu, HD137:

Rep. Gene Wu

State Rep. Gene Wu’s understanding that “budget is policy” will come in handy next year as the pandemic’s strain on the economy will demand creative thinking from lawmakers in finding new sources of revenue and to ensure vital services are protected.

“Education cuts are off limits — period,” Wu told the editorial board. “It took us twenty-something years to even get to this point where we can say education is at least somewhat well-funded. We don’t want to go backward.”

The Democrat’s experience last session as a member of the powerful House appropriations committee is just one more reason why voters in Texas House District 137 should send Wu back to Austin for another term.

“I believe in Texas, I believe in this country and I believe the people deserve to be represented by someone who is both knowledgeable and passionate about making people’s lives better,” Wu says.

[…]

Elected in 2012, the 42-year-old former prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office hit the ground running. He has introduced and fought for a variety of bills, many of them focused on battling human trafficking, juvenile and adult criminal justice reform, and protecting children from abuse, including an overhaul of Child Protective Services that received widespread bipartisan support.

Rep. Wu, whom you should be following on Twitter if you’re not already, is going to be a force to be reckoned with when the Dems have a majority in the House, and even more so when they have more than that. I also get the sense that he will run for something bigger at some point. I could picture him as a candidate for District Attorney, Mayor of Houston, a Congressional district if there’s a clear opportunity after redistricting, or even something statewide, as the tide in Texas continues to turn. And if I’m wrong and he’s still in the House ten years from now, he’ll either be Speaker or a senior member of the Speaker’s leadership team. If I’m still writing this thing ten years from now, you can fact-check me on this.

Akilah Bacy, HD138:

Akilah Bacy

Investing in education, making affordable health care available to more Texans and ensuring big businesses pay their fair share are some of the top priorities for Democrat Akilah Bacy, our choice in the race for Texas House District 138.

The district, which includes Spring Branch and Cypress-Fairbanks, has been represented by Republican Dwayne Bohac since 2003, but changing demographics have turned it into a battleground. Bohac, who kept his seat in 2018 by just 47 votes, is not running again.

Bacy, 35, is a graduate of Texas Tech law school and was an assistant district attorney for Harris County before opening her own firm. She grew up in northwest Houston and understands her community’s strengths and its challenges. Although she is a “solid blue Democrat,” Bacy stressed, if elected, she would legislate for all Texans.

“I am running to make sure that I am a representative who speaks for our district, not just the Democrats, not just the independents, not just the Republicans,” she told the editorial board.

Her opponent, Republican Lacey Hull, testified in Austin for parents who opt out their children from mandatory vaccines and a “parental rights” group she co-founded wants to dismantle Child Protective Services. Despite repeated invitations, she did not meet with the editorial board.

My interview with Akilah Bacy from the primary is here. I think she’ll make a fine State Rep. I get that some Republicans think that the Chron isn’t fair to them in the interview/endorsement process, and if you do think that then there’s no point in talking to them. But I have to say, if you’re anti-vaxx and pro-dismantling CPS, you should feel like a pariah.

The HCDE makeover

One more world to conquer in Harris County.

David Brown

The future looked bleak for Texas’ last remaining county education department in early 2019.

After years of state-level efforts to abolish the Harris County Department of Education, a new majority of trustees signaled they would take a more critical look at the agency’s inner workings and whether it still served the core function of supporting local school districts.

Less than a year later, the entire makeup of the board has changed. Now a 5-2 majority of HCDE supporters oversee the department and its $128 million annual budget, a majority that could grow after the November election.

The two board seats on this year’s ballot — two of the three at-large positions — are held by Republicans Don Sumners and Michael Wolfe, the remaining trustees who have been critical of the department in the past. Sumners is seeking re-election, and although Wolfe is not running for his old seat, his father, Bob Wolfe, is.

Sumners’ Democratic opponent is David Brown, an educator who works for Change Happens, a Third Ward-based nonprofit that provides mentoring, drug prevention and other services to low-income youth. Democrat Erica Davis, chief of staff for Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, is running against Wolfe. If Brown and Davis capture the two at-large positions, board president Eric Dick — who has opposed efforts to shut down the department — would be the lone remaining Republican trustee.

[…]

Erica Davis

In recent decades, the department has been the subject of frequent criticism of some state and local conservatives who call it an unnecessary bureaucracy that would better serve districts if it were dissolved and its assets were given to local schools.

Republicans who shared that belief gained control of the board after the 2018 midterm elections and were quick to exercise their new role. Former trustee Josh Flynn was named board president during his first meeting in January 2019. Minutes later, the board voted to scrap a contract with a lobbying firm that represented HCDE interests in Austin.

They voted the following month to change the composition of an ancillary board that issues bonds and oversees construction contracts. They asked the board attorney to investigate the department’s Education Foundation, then put an item on two meeting agendas to replace the same attorney with a representative from Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain’s law firm, an ally of the Republican trustees. The board ultimately kept its original lawyer after the item to remove her was tabled.

Tempers flared between the new majority and those who supported the agency. Trustee Eric Dick, the sole Republican on the board who supported HCDE, frequently exchanged terse words with the new majority, especially former President Flynn and Trustee Michael Wolfe. The tension came to a head after Dick reported that Wolfe had made sexual advances on a woman who had applied to become the board’s secretary, and allegedly attempted to blacklist her among Houston Republican groups after she turned down his advances.

After reviewing a third-party report on the allegations commissioned by the board, trustees voted to censure Wolfe in April 2019, and Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan launched an investigation into the allegations. Wolfe has denied the allegations, and the county attorney has yet to release any findings.

Ultimately, the board’s Republican majority was short-lived. Former Trustee George Moore resigned after moving out of Harris County in May 2019, and the board later appointed Democrat Amy Hinojosa to replace him. Flynn resigned in December that same year after his eligibility to run for the Texas House was questioned due to his position on the board. The board appointed Democrat Andrea Duhon to take Flynn’s place, firmly shifting the board majority.

“I have to tell you, it seems like it’s working like a well-oiled machine,” Duhon said. “It’s been fabulous not having to worry about someone coming in and trying to tear it all apart.”

Sumners, Bettencourt and other Republicans have blamed Flynn for the shift in power. Though Republicans outnumbered Democrats for most of 2019, Dick sided with the Democrats amid an ongoing feud with the Republican trustees, resulting in a 3-3 deadlock that left the board unable to appoint Moore’s replacement. Moore was barred from voting.

In December, however, Flynn skipped a meeting where trustees were set to appoint his and Moore’s replacements. That allowed Dick and the two Democrats to appoint Hinojosa and Duhon.

See here for some background. I had wondered how it was that a board with a Republican majority managed to appoint two Democrats as replacement for departing Republicans, thus turning a 5-2 GOP majority into a 4-3 Dem majority. Pretty hilarious, if you ask me. It’s only the second time in my memory that the Dems have had a majority on the HCDE Board. A brief history:

2006: All seven members are Republicans, after Dems failed to field a candidate in the Precinct 1 position (the incumbent, who had not drawn a primary challenger, withdrew at the last minute).

2008: 5-2 Republicans after Jim Henley and Debra Kerner win the two At Large positions that were on the ballot, as part of the initial Democratic breakthrough in Harris County. Kerner’s opponent in that election, by the way, was none other than Stan Stanart.

2012: Erica Lee wins the Precinct 1 position, and Diane Trautman wins the third At Large spot, thus giving the Dems a 4-3 advantage.

2014: Republicans take back the two At Large positions they lost in 2008 and go back up by a 5-2 margin on the Board. Michael Wolfe, who had lost in 2012, and Don Sumners are elected.

2016: No change in composition, but Sherrie Matula loses the Precinct 2 race by a whisker. Eric Dick is elected in Precinct 4.

2018: Still no change in composition. Danny Norris succeeds Erica Lee in Precinct 1, Richard Cantu succeeds Diane Trautman in the At Large position, and Josh Flynn defeats Andrea Duhon by less than 2,000 votes for the Precinct 3 spot. While Republicans maintain a 5-2 majority on the Board, they now have a majority of Board members who want to undermine what the Board is doing.

Late 2019, after the filing period for 2020 closes: George Moore (who had defeated Matula by less than 500 votes in 2016) resigns for personal reasons, and Josh Flynn resigns (after a bit of a kerfuffle with the county GOP) to pursue the nomination in HD138 (he would lose the primary). As described above, Amy Hinojosa and Andrea Duhon are appointed, giving the Dems a 4-3 majority again. With the Dems favored to win the two At Large seats back, they would have a 6-1 majority for next year. Hinojosa will be up for election in 2022, and Duhon in 2024.

So there you have it. There have been some attempts in the Lege to curtail the HCDE , and it won’t surprise me if there are bills to that effect filed in this session. Having a Dem House majority would block that. In the meantime, I don’t know what has gotten into Eric Dick, but I approve. Remember to vote in these races, they will be way down at the bottom of the ballot. Any chance you get to vote against Don Sumners, you owe it to yourself to take it.

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The Chron adds some detail.

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

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

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

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

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

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

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

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

Let’s not overstate the no-straight-ticket effect

With all due respect, this is some ado about not very much.

With straight-ticket voting no longer an option in 2020, the Harris County Clerk estimates the average resident will spend a significantly longer time in the voting booth this fall, which could cause long lines at polling sites in the state’s most populous county.

In an effort to avoid voting delays, Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins has nearly tripled the number of early voting sites to 120 and increased Election Day polling places by 8 percent, to 808. The $27.2 million plan, the most expensive election in county history, also includes extended voting hours and drive-through balloting.

Gov. Greg Abbott also has added an extra week of early voting.

With a projected record turnout of as many as 1.7 million voters, the clerk’s office hopes residents vote early or by mail, if eligible, said Benjamin Chou, Hollins’ director of innovation.

“No matter how much we do, I think at the end of the day there will be lines,” Chou said. “It’s just a matter of will we avoid a nightmare scenario by doing as much as we can, by stretching the limits of what we thought was possible even just a few months ago.”

The Legislature abolished straight-ticket voting, effective in 2020, in an effort to ensure residents make informed choices about candidates.

The elimination of that method, combined with a ballot with more than 80 races and limited access to mail ballots have made this year particularly difficult for elections administrators. A stopwatch test by Hollins’ office calculated that a straight-ticket ballot takes two minutes to cast, while selecting a candidate for each individual race in November would take 15 minutes.

Using those estimates and turnout data from 2018, when 76 percent of voters selected a straight ticket, a Houston Chronicle analysis found county voters would spend a combined 187,000 more hours in the voting booth if forced to vote each race individually.

A more likely outcome is that some voters, late for work or family obligations or simply overwhelmed by the length of the ballot, make choices in only the top races, said University of Houston political science Professor Elizabeth Simas.

“The fear would be they go to vote for president, maybe vote for senator, and then they walk out,” Simas said. “And we’re not going to get a large number of votes cast for the races that are much lower down the ballot.”

I will stipulate that going from clicking one button and being done to having to click a button fifty-something times will make your stay in the booth that much longer. (I have no idea where that “ballot with more than 80 races” item comes from. I just checked my own sample ballot, and I counted 54 total races, and that includes a handful of races with just an unopposed Democrat. The non-Presidential ballot is longer, as there are more statewide contests and more local judicial races, but we’re not in 2022 just yet.) There’s no question that it will take voters longer to vote the whole ballot, and if you are the kind of voter who deliberates over every race and carefully chooses a candidate in each, then yes, you could be there for 15 minutes or so.

But here’s the thing: That kind of voter wasn’t the person who had been clicking the straight-party button before now. And I can tell you, from my own personal experience, if your intent is to mostly or entirely vote for just the candidates of your preferred party, then it doesn’t actually take all that long to complete the ballot. I feel pretty confident saying I’ve been in and out of there in five minutes or less.

I don’t want to minimize the problem. It is going to take longer for many people to vote this year. There will very likely be some lines as a result. It’s clear that part if not all of the reason for eliminating straight ticket voting was the belief by Republicans that making it take longer to vote would benefit them. There have been so many stories this cycle in which a Republican candidate or consultant refers to this, as if it’s a key part of their strategy to win in an electorate that does not favor them. Putting aside the fact that I don’t believe “ballot fatigue” is a thing that significantly favors Republicans, I just don’t think the time factor will be that big, either. We have plenty of voting locations, we have six extra days plus a whole lot of hours to vote, and we have a lot more people voting by mail this year. I appreciate that Chris Hollins is thinking about this, but it is not something that will keep me awake at night.

Endorsement watch: The Susan Collins of Texas

Three things in life are certain: Death, taxes, and certain Chron endorsements.

Rep. Sarah Davis

The voters in state House District 134 — a swing district that covers all or parts of River Oaks, Bellaire and Meyerland and includes the Texas Medical Center — face a tough choice in the Nov. 3 election.

Five-term Republican incumbent Rep. Sarah Davis and Democratic challenger Ann Johnson are both well-qualified, skilled communicators whose many talents would serve them well in the Legislature.

We recommend Davis, 44, based on her experience, growth in office and independence.

A rare Texas Republican who supports abortion rights, she has moved from the tea party positions of her first 2010 victory to embrace the Affordable Care Act provisions of Medicaid expansion and coverage of pre-existing conditions as well as bucking her party on other issues.

[…]

Johnson has stressed her policy differences with Davis on immigration and gun control, where the incumbent is more in line with the GOP. Johnson has criticized Davis’ vote to let school districts arm teachers and to require universities to permit guns in campus parking lots and her sponsorship of a “show me your papers” bill to allow local law enforcement officials to ask about immigration status.

Those are not measures supported by the editorial board.

And yet. In the same way that the Chron endorsed Orlando Sanchez for Treasurer in four straight elections, so have they endorsed Sarah Davis consistently since 2012. Look, if you want to believe that Sarah Davis is a force for good for reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality and even expanding Medicaid, I can’t stop you. I happen to think that campus carry and “sanctuary cities” legislation are indelible stains on her record, but you do you. My opinion is that it’s better to maximize the odds of a Democratic House than to depend on a singular Republican savior. Your mileage may vary.

(Where the post title came from.)

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Endorsement watch: No Briscoe

The Chron follows the basic principle that bad acts should not be rewarded, and bad actors do not belong in positions of trust and power.

Mary Williams

In his two terms representing House District 128, Rep. Briscoe Cain has quickly acquired a reputation well beyond being the most conservative lawmaker in the House. He’s an elected official whose offensive posts earned him a suspension on Twitter. He was Texas Monthly’s Worst Legislator of 2017.

As a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, Cain has tweeted a threat to former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke with the warning “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” He trolled Stephen Hawking shortly after news of the acclaimed physicist’s death.

He introduced legislation to defund a state council that promotes palliative care for the terminally ill, conflating the specialized end-of-life services for dying patients with so-called “death panels.” He wastes his colleagues’ time on the House floor pushing severe abortion restrictions he knows won’t pass constitutional muster. He posed for the cameras while getting an illegal haircut as a stunt to pressure Gov. Greg Abbott to reopen hair salons and barbershops.

That kind of grandstanding in the chamber or social media chatter does nothing to benefit the people of House District 128, which straddles the Houston Ship Channel and includes Pasadena, Deer Park, Baytown and Crosby.

They deserve better. They deserve a state representative who cares about the issues important to the district — air quality, chemical plant safety, education.

That is why we are recommending his challenger, Democrat Mary Williams, in the House District 128 race.

I mean, look, HD128 is the most Republican House district in Harris County, and the people of HD128 are represented by Briscoe Cain because they voted for Briscoe Cain. It’s free and fair to call him out on his bullshit – he has a level of entitlement that would put any trust fund boarding school scion to shame – but he’s not in office because of some anti-democratic shenanigans. The world is always a better place when the likes of Briscoe Cain are sitting on the sidelines, but let’s not fool ourselves about why he’s not.

The Chron also takes a stance against bad ethics.

Sandra Moore

Voters in state House District 133 returned Rep. Jim Murphy for a sixth term in the Legislature in 2018, even after news broke about a business arrangement that raised serious questions about possible conflicts of interest.

Murphy was paid a yearly salary for more than $312,000 as the general manager of the Westchase Management District, which is also within the boundaries of HD 133. He also served as chairman of the House Committee on Special Purpose Districts.

The situation got even murkier when reporters revealed that Murphy’s contracts included incentive payments for delivering state funds from the Legislature. For example, Murphy would receive a $6,000 bonus if he secured “$1 million or more in new TxDOT funding for highway projects” for Westchase.

Murphy has not been accused of a crime or cited for an ethics violation, but this is a violation of public trust in an issue involving taxpayers’ money.

Still, Murphy won re-election with 58 percent of the vote in 2018 and can expect a similar margin this fall in the solidly Republican district.

But if you believe Murphy’s arrangement to be disqualifying, and we do, there are two other candidates on the ballot for consideration: Democrat Sandra Moore and Libertarian James Harren.

The Chron endorsed Moore, who ran for HD133 in 2018 but lost in the primary runoff. I find Briscoe Cain to be by far the more egregious of the two – Murphy has redeeming qualities as a legislator who can do productive work – but oddly enough this sort of sin seems like the more probable cause for a voter to turn on him. Briscoe Cain can do what he does because enough people in his district like him for what he does. Murphy may find that his actions may cost him friends, or at least the support of some voters. That has something to do with the district in question as well, but self-dealing drawing a stink eye is more universal. (Unless your name is Donald Trump, of course.) Also, this district is like a more Republican version of HD134, and as such I’d bet the under on that 58% mark for Murphy. He had no opponent in 2016, but HD133 performed as a 62-63% Republican district that year. It won’t surprise me to see a couple more points shaved off of that this year.

A matter of timing

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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