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More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

A poll of poll workers

A bit of good news, and a bit of a warning, here.

Harris County poll workers seem willing to participate in this fall’s presidential election, even amid the pandemic, but voters are more reluctant, according to results from a recent Rice University survey.

Poll workers here — regardless of party affiliation — were game to show up if conditions are safe enough. However, registered voters across the political spectrum were more reluctant about in-person voting even with safeguards in place, according to a Rice University study conducted between March 27 and May 4.

“What was surprising to us was how many poll workers were committed to working the polls with the caveat that they wanted protective gear, Plexiglass screens and Q-tips (to cast votes on machines). They wanted to do in-person voting with protection,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor who ran the survey funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Initiative with colleagues from the university’s psychology, anthropology and computer science departments.

[…]

Nearly 80 percent of poll workers said they were likely to help out in November at sites that observed social distancing guidelines and provided personal protective equipment. Poll staffers were were less enthusiastic about outdoor or drive-thru voting scenarios, according to the Rice findings. Many election workers said they relied on the seasonal income.

Voters’ responses lined up more predictably based on their age, party and gender. Democrats, women and people over 65 opted for potential remote voting — drive-thru, drop-off, mail-in or online options. Republicans, men and voters under under 65 were more willing to cast ballots in person.

More than 30 percent of Democrats said were unlikely to vote in person with nothing but social distancing to protect them, versus 9 percent of Republicans. A fourth of women voters were reluctant to vote in person, compared to 14 percent of men. Among voters over 65, who are at greater risk if exposed to the virus, 27 percent said they probably wouldn’t vote even with protections in place; whereas, 18 percent of voters under 65 said they were averse to voting under those circumstances.

You can see a copy of the poll report here. As the story notes, the Harris County Clerk is already gearing up for more mail ballots and other protective measures for the July and November elections. The challenge may be a little greater now with the forthcoming resignation of County Clerk Diane Trautman, but that shouldn’t complicate things too much. Given the concerns about poll workers, most of whom are over 60, I’m pleasantly surprised to see their willingness to work this election. That says a lot both about their dedication, and their faith that the county will do a good job of making their job as safe as possible.

The partisan split in willingness to vote in person is a bit alarming, but let’s keep three things in mind. One is that the last picture everyone has of voting is the fiasco in Wisconsin, which I daresay has people justifiably spooked. I feel reasonably confident that election officials in the state do not want their county to be the poster child for that kind of experience in November, so I have faith there will be plenty done to ameliorate the concerns. I hope that the July primary runoffs will help alleviate some worry as well. Two, that cohort of people who are most reluctant about voting in person are the people who absolutely and without question already have the right to vote by mail, and that’s the voters who are 65 or older. The HCDP has been quite good at getting mail ballots out to their voters in recent elections, and I feel confident they’re up to that task for this year as well. I would also expect there to be a lot of messaging to voters, from the county and from parties and candidates, about voting by mail. And three, we still may get a much broader vote by mail program for the state, in one of the lawsuits that have been filed by the TDP or the one filed by younger voters on federal age discrimination claims. We now know more about where people are for this election. We just need to act on it.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

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

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Here’s the official order in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit

Round One went to the plaintiffs. From there, who knows.

A Texas state district judge on Friday issued an order allowing voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail for as long as the pandemic lasts — an early victory for the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups seeking to expand mail-in voting, though the ruling is almost certain to be quickly appealed by the state.

Judge Tim Sulak’s temporary injunction says the state can’t stop voters from voting by mail based on disability “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and it stops the state from “taking actions” preventing county elections officials from accepting and counting mail-in ballots from those voters.

State law allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

Democrats and voting rights groups, who have sued in both state and federal court, argued the disability clause should cover voters who are worried about showing up to a polling place during a pandemic. But Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has said fear of the coronavirus is not an acceptable excuse to claim disability to vote by mail.

The order was expected after Sulak said during a court hearing earlier this week he was inclined to issue it.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the order. I don’t believe an appeal has been filed or even formally announced yet, but it’s 100% there will be one, and this won’t be settled as a matter of state litigation till the Supreme Court rules. As noted, there is also a federal lawsuit out there, so all sorts of things can happen. Also, so far this ruling just affects the primary runoffs in July. There will be another hearing in August on the merits of the case to determine whether this should be extended to the November election. Assuming that other rulings haven’t made this all moot by then, of course.

In the meantime, here’s another look from Vox’s Ian Millhiser, who had done an earlier analysis that outlined the cruz of the dispute. This article in Slate also provides a useful way of thinking about this case.

The election law in question says a person can only vote by mail if the would-be voter “has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” On one hand, Paxton’s claim that being sick means actually being physically ill is plausible. The rule, he says, is about sick people who can’t get to the polls because they are sick, or who might get sicker if they had to vote in person. It is not about non-sick people afraid of getting sick if they go to the polls.

As the ACLU stated it in its motion in the case, though, it’s arguable that everyone now has a “physical condition” that increases the “likelihood” that going to the polls might “injure[] the voter’s health.” (New Hampshire has interpreted its analogous “physical disability” provision in precisely this way) Paxton’s construction of the statute, meanwhile, also might mean that someone who actually tests positive for COVID-19 but is asymptomatic may not qualify for an absentee ballot, which seems absurd. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser wrote: “Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate.”

This is where Texas’ judges should turn to the so-called “democracy canon,” a method of interpreting statutes that is tailor-made for cases like this one. In his 2009 Stanford Law Review article about the method, University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen offered a case citation that perfectly captures the heart of the democracy canon: “[a]ll statutes tending to limit the citizen in his exercise of [the right of suffrage] should be liberally construed in his favor.” In other words, when there is a “tie” in how to interpret the statute, the tie goes to the voter.

The case Hasen cited—Owens v. State ex rel. Jennett—was, in fact, a Texas Supreme Court case. Indeed, Texas historically adopted a fairly strong version of what Hasen called the democracy canon. In one appeals court case from the 1950s on the very subject of absentee ballots, Sanchez v. Bravo, a Texas court established a “clear statement” rule regarding restrictions on the right to vote. If a state is going to prevent someone from voting, the court ruled, they have to say so in “clear and unmistakable terms.” Otherwise, courts must read the law in a way that promotes “the right of the citizen to cast his ballot and thus participate in the selection of those who control his government.”

Finally, there is a related issue about the good faith of the voters who’ve decided they want to vote absentee by mail. If the Texas Supreme Court eventually comes down on the side of a narrow reading of the law—turning its back on the democracy canon and an older body of the court’s own jurisprudence—this could be made up by voting officials and lower courts generously construing on a case-by-case basis voters’ reasons why they chose to vote absentee. It is here that Paxton’s veiled warning in the letter that those who obtain ballots by “false pretenses” can be prosecuted sounds a sour note. It is one thing to proclaim a general election rule regarding sickness and disability. It is a separate and more ominous thing for the state of Texas to threaten voters who understandably want to have it both ways: to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic and exercise their right to vote.

Again, nothing really matters in this lawsuit except what five or more members of the state Supreme Court say, but it’s good to have a way to make a coherent argument for the plaintiffs. And by the way, if you’d like to see that ambiguous language in the state law replaced by something that unambiguously allows for more people to vote by mail, that starts with electing more Democrats to office, most especially in the Attorney General’s office.

What’s weird in all of this is that voting by mail has long been a Republican asset, though admittedly in this state for a very small number of voters. I agree with Campos, Republican voters themselves like voting by mail. I’m old enough to remember that vote by mail is exempt from the state’s ridiculously strict voter ID law, in large part because the Republicans who passed our voter ID law recognized that vote by mail was their bread and butter. That appears to have been replaced by a larger fear of anything that might make voting easier for the general public, which for sure is what everyone from Trump on down is trumpeting. But be careful what you wish for, because the recent Wisconsin experience suggests that Democrats may be better equipped to overcome barriers to voting than Republicans are, since Democrats by now have so much more experience in having to overcome obstacles. Maybe – I know this is crazy talk, but hear me out – if the Republicans spent a bit more time persuading people to vote for them rather than making it harder for anyone to vote, they might be better off in the end.

So about that Senate race

I mostly agree with this.

MJ Hegar

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s re-election campaign should be his race to lose.

The coronavirus outbreak, by most measures, has given Cornyn an even bigger advantage as he runs for a fourth term. The Texas Republican is sitting on $12 million with ads already on TV as his challengers campaign online against each other in a runoff election that was delayed six weeks by the pandemic.

Democrats MJ Hegar and Royce West are competing for attention with the biggest public health crisis in a century as they prepare for the July 14 election. The winner will get less than four months of head-to-head campaigning against Cornyn.

The Democrats had hoped to ride the momentum from Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz two years ago.

Sen. Royce West

Instead, “Sen. Cornyn is outpacing the Democrats on name identification, fundraising, and base support,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “Democrats are in a holding pattern, stalling their momentum when it was needed to ramp up support. Given where things are, it would take Beto-level enthusiasm to capture Texans’ attention, which is on anything but politics for the moment.”

But Cornyn’s opponents see an opening.

They are now doing all they can to tie Cornyn to the Trump administration’s slow response to the outbreak and to hammer him over health care, which their party believes is a winning issue for Democrats nationally — but especially against the Texas Republican, who played a crucial role in efforts to scrap the Affordable Care Act.

They say Cornyn has helped them make their case by tweeting pictures of Corona beer, saying it will be a “piece of cake” to beat the virus and blaming Chinese culture for COVID-19.

“I think we have more opportunity to show people the contrast of the type of leadership they can see from John Cornyn in a crisis, which is tweeting out pictures of beer in rocks glasses,” said MJ Hegar, a former Air Force pilot vying to challenge Cornyn. “Now more than ever, we’re seeing the importance that everyone have access to health care. We’re seeing how painful a health care model tied to your employment is when we have record unemployment numbers.”

Cornyn has the big advantages in fundraising and name ID as noted, and now is a lousy time for the two Dems remaining in the race to try to catch up on them. I mean, just look back at what I’ve been writing about for the past three or four weeks. There’s nothing to be said about most 2020 races right now, in part because everyone is focused on the pandemic, and in part because there’s not much the candidates themselves can do to make news, at least in a good way. The main potential for an equalizer is of course Donald Trump. His numbers have not been great in Texas, and if he slips into negative territory here – not just in approval ratings, but in actual head-to-head polling numbers – that will be a boost for the Dem and a drag on Cornyn. It’s too early to say what might happen, and at this point we have no idea how the 2020 election will be conducted and how that might affect things. Cornyn was always the favorite and he remains the favorite. The biggest risk to him is the one thing he cannot control, the virus and the President’s handling of it. We’ll see where we stand when things get back to something resembling normal.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

From Ian Millhiser at Vox, who is decidedly more pessimistic about the plaintiffs’ chances. He starts by noting how restrictive Texas’ existing vote-by-mail law is.

The law only allows Texas voters to obtain an absentee ballot under a very limited list of circumstances. Voters may obtain an absentee ballot if they plan to be absent from their home county on Election Day, if they have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from voting in person, if they are over the age of 65, or if they are jailed.

It is far from clear that a healthy person who remains at home to avoid contracting coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot.

Texas Democratic Party v. Hughs, a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party, seeks to fix this law — or, at least, to interpret the law in a way that will ensure healthy people can still vote. But the lawsuit potentially faces an uphill battle in a state court system dominated by conservative judges.

All nine members of the state Supreme Court are Republicans, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion seeking to intervene in the lawsuit — a sign that he intends to resist efforts to prevent this law from disenfranchising voters.

The stakes in this case are astoundingly high. As Texas Democrats note in their complaint, voters are “now heavily discouraged” from even leaving their homes “by various government orders and are being discouraged in an enormous public education campaign.”

Even if the pandemic were to end by July 14, when the state plans to hold several runoff elections, “certain populations will feel the need and/or be required to continue social distancing.” Millions of voters could potentially be forced to choose between losing their right to vote and risking contracting a deadly disease.

[…]

Whether these Texans can get an absentee ballot could end up depending on how the courts interpret the phrase “physical condition.”

On the one hand, the law explicitly labels this provision as an accommodation for people who have a “disability.” The words “physical condition” also appear in conjunction with the word “sickness,” which implies that those words should be interpreted to refer to some sort of disabling condition that only a subset of Texans possess. Often, when a law uses a general term in the context of other, more specific terms, courts will assume that the general term should be given a narrow reading — one similar to the specific terms.

On the other hand, the literal meaning of the words “physical condition” is much more expansive. As a team of civil rights lawyers, including several from the ACLU, argue in a motion suggesting that the state law should be read expansively, “everyone has a physical condition” that prevents them from appearing at their polling place during a pandemic — the physical condition of being susceptible to coronavirus.

Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate. One judge might argue that the words “physical condition” should be read expansively, because that is the ordinary meaning of those words. Another might argue that they must be read in context with words like “sickness.”

The problem facing the Texas Democratic Party is that, when a fair judge acting in good faith could legitimately read a law in two different ways, it is very easy for a partisan judge to choose the interpretation they prefer. And every one of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court is a Republican.

Because older voters tend to prefer the GOP, the Texas Republican Party has a clear interest in preserving a legal regime that allows voters over 65 to obtain an absentee ballot but makes it much harder for younger voters to do so.

That said, if Democrats lose this particular lawsuit, that does not necessarily mean millions of Texans will lose their right to vote. It’s possible a federal court could rescue Texas voters in a separate lawsuit — one that most likely has not even been filed yet — holding that the unique burden the coronavirus pandemic imposes on voters renders Texas’s strict absentee ballot law unconstitutional.

This was written before the TDP filed its federal lawsuit, so bear that in mind as you read. I appreciate the analysis, which is the first in-depth look at the crux of the issue that I’ve seen. It’s a little crazy that it all hangs on the interpretation of two words, but here we are. I agree that in normal times one could reasonably interpret this either way, but if there’s ever a time for a bit of leeway, this is it. It’s not terribly surprising to me that the AG’s office has petitioned to intervene in the case – this is standard procedure for when the state gets sued, though the SOS does have its own attorneys. I’m more keen to know what if anything Greg Abbott thinks – if there’s going to be some influence on the court, it’ll come from him. There are definitely plenty of Republican elected officials who are in denial about the situation, and that could lead to pressure on Abbott to take a line-in-the-sand stance. Hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or it won’t.

It’s also possible that the delayed July 14 primary runoffs will go off without any problems and in-person voting is fine, thus leading to a sense of complacency for November. Or maybe things will still be bad, or at least bad in the more-Republican rural areas, and that might make some people more aware of the fact that everyone has something to lose if we don’t plan better. That recent SOS advisory leaves me with some hope for a settlement in the existing litigation. The real tell will be if and when the usual agitators on the right start whipping up a frenzy. Remember also that the Republicans are busy trying to register voters this year – they have a stake in getting whatever new voters they sign up to the polls, too. Like I said, I have hope for a settlement, but it’s too early to tell which way the wind will blow.

So about those runoffs

They’re still happening in July. For now.

Democrats and Republicans across Texas are settling in for the new normal that is campaigning in the time of the novel coronavirus.

Not only has the pandemic upended how candidates campaign for the foreseeable future, it has also caused the May runoff election to be pushed back seven weeks, adding more uncertainty to a high-stakes election cycle in Texas. The changes impact runoffs in a slew of especially consequential races, from the U.S. Senate contest to most of the U.S. House races that national Democrats are prioritizing.

Regardless of the runoff date change, campaigns were already making adjustments. Many have canceled in-person campaigning and moved as much of their efforts online as possible. Some have reoriented their campaigns for now to focus on community service in the face of the outbreak. And a few have even stopped actively fundraising, at least online.

“I think what my team knows is that we’re in a different time now than we were a couple weeks ago,” Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician running for Congress, told a Facebook audience Sunday.

To be sure, candidates are not setting politics entirely aside, especially as Democrats move to highlight what they see as an inadequate response to the pandemic by Republicans in Washington and Texas. But for now, they are stuck in a potentially monthslong limbo.

While Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that the runoff would be postponed to July 14, it remains to be seen whether additional adjustments will be necessary for the election. Democrats are all but unified in arguing that the runoff postponement is not enough on its own and that Texas needs to expand voting by mail as well. Abbott has not ruled that out, though other top Texas Republicans have balked at the idea so far.

Runoffs are already low-turnout affairs, and campaign operatives are bracing for the numbers to drop even further for the new July date, especially if public health concerns persist. The extended runoff also means a longer head start for a slew of candidates in battleground races who already won their primaries earlier this month.

I don’t think turnout will be that greatly affected. Primary runoff voters are already the hardest of the hardcore, and there’s only so far down turnout could go anyway. I think, given the races and candidates involved, there will be enough money to remind voters that there is an election and that they should vote in it. This assumes that we are actually able to have the runoff in July a currently planned, which we obviously hope will be the case. It would be nice if the state had a plan to deal not just with what happens if coronavirus is still an ongoing concern, but also if people are just still afraid of it. That could include – as we have beaten into the ground – expanding vote by mail, and also early voting, all in the name of social distancing. Which, again, I hope isn’t a necessity at that time, but may still be a good idea.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

We already have the power to do more voting by mail

KUT points to a path forward that could get a lot more people voting by mail in Texas.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

As the story notes, not a lot of people 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail no questions asked, take advantage of it now. Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir puts the figure at 10-15% there, and I’d bet it’s similar in Harris County. We could already have a lot more people voting by mail right now if they wanted to. The HCDP has a program where it sends a vote by mail application to all of its known-to-be-Democratic voters and then calls them to remind them to send it in (I’ve participated in that), and you can see the effect it has had in recent elections. Thanks to the high level of turnout in this year’s primary we have a lot more Dems identified, and we could get a lot more mail ballot applications sent out. It’s up to the voters themselves to take it from there.

I should note, since I pointed this out before, that having more people vote by mail will also mitigate the effect of not having a straight ticket voting option, in that it will not add to the lines at voting locations. That’s another pretty big consideration after this year’s primary, too. What I’m saying here is: If you’re a Dem and you’re 65 or will be by this November, please consider getting a mail ballot. Pester your eligible friends about it, too. Yes, I know, I love going to the polling places, and I’d greatly miss it if I didn’t do that. And Lord knows, we should very much be on the other end of the coronavirus curve by then – if not, we’re in much deeper trouble than we’re in now – but still. This is a thing you can do that would help on more than one level. Give it some thought.

Even more so, if you’re a person with health issues, especially if you’re in any way immuno-compromised, you can request a mail ballot as well. Your County Clerk ought to oblige. Again, we’ll very likely be mostly out of the pandemic woods by November, but again, why not take advantage anyway? It’ll be good for you, and good for the wait times at polling places. What’s not to like?

Now having said all that, there are potential drawbacks to expanding vote by mail, and we need to take them seriously. One, as Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, vote by mail applications can be rejected due to signature mismatches, and elections officials aren’t good at notifying applicants when this happens. That was noted in the earlier story about the possibility of an all-mail primary runoff election. You’ll need to be persistent and pester your county clerk if you don’t get your mail ballot in a timely fashion. Two, if you do go this route, please don’t then show up at a polling place and vote again in person. Every cycle some people get confused about this, and it is a thing you can be prosecuted for. Three, if the GOP suspects that Democratic voters are trying to game the system somehow by getting mail ballots to people who are not 65 but are claiming a health exception, they will surely take some kind of legal action to stop it. It’s hard to say how big a deal that could be, but we really don’t need further attacks on the legitimacy of our elections.

Finally, Campos raises a good point:

On the mail ballots for everyone thing, we need to be careful on this. I am all for going to a vote by mail system in the future. Last week, I watched a CNN piece on how the state of Washington handles their vote by mail system. It is pretty elaborate with a lot of special equipment and a physical layout to handle the volume. I don’t think the folks who conduct our elections in Texas have the infrastructure in place to handle 16 million mail ballots. I just don’t think we jump into this system under emergency circumstances. Convince me otherwise. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago today.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think we can encourage people who are already eligible to vote by mail to consider doing so if they haven’t already – there’s a clear benefit to that and the system should have no trouble handling it. Anything bigger than that will require planning and coordination, and we’re not there yet. We don’t want to risk having a worse outcome because we weren’t able to deliver on our promises.

On balance, there’s no reason why folks who are clearly eligible to get a mail ballot not to do so, and many reasons why they should. The first order of business is to make sure they know that they can, and then follow up from there. We can do that this year. It’s already in our power. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

Texas is not making any moves to delay the May 26 primary runoff as of now, even as other states have opted to postpone elections.
But election officials have had preliminary conversations about the potential of doing vote-by-mail ballots only for the runoffs, which would be a first in Texas history.
“It’s a possible solution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said Monday.

He said the idea has been kicked around and could work because of how low the turnout typically is for runoffs in Texas. As a former elections official, he said he has no doubt Texas counties could get ballots to voters who wanted to vote by mail rather than risk going to large polling sites.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, would not confirm that it is exploring that possibility, only saying a lot of options are on the table.

[…]

Other states have postponed primaries entirely. In Louisiana, election day has been moved from April 4 to June 20. In Georgia, the March 24 primary is now on May 19.

Absentee voting by mail is allowed in Texas for some people but isn’t very popular. In the March 4 primary, just 52,000 of 516,000 voters in Harris County cast ballots by mail.

In order to vote by mail in the May 26 runoff, voters must submit an application by May 15 to their county elections office.

See here for the background. It’s not clear to me how this could be accomplished without a special session of the Legislature, but perhaps Greg Abbott has the authority to order the SOS to come up with a plan for this based on the declared state of emergency. I’ll want to see an explanation of that, but even if it is a special session that is needed, that should be doable. The bigger question, as I discussed in my post, is whether everyone would have to apply for a mail ballot, or whether one would just be mailed to everyone who cast a primary vote. One can reasonably argue for either – I prefer the latter approach, as noted – and one can also point out that either approach has its share of logistical challenges. Which means that if we’re serious about this and not just dicking around, we need to get a proposal on the table and have at it.

One other issue to contend with:

Voting rights advocacy groups have been leery of Texas pushing vote-by-mail too far because its system makes it too easy for voters’ ballots to be thrown out if elections officials decide a signature on a returned ballot doesn’t look right.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has warned that the ballots are not reviewed by experts but instead by everyday eligible voters who just eyeball signatures for irregularities. Those decisions are final and give voters no chance to prove a ballot was properly signed. The group has pushed for Texas to allow voters a chance to contest ballots rejected for a signature match issue.

That’s a very legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed if this moves forward. Plenty of other states do a lot more voting by mail than Texas does, so I’m sure there are ways to handle this, it just needs to be an actual priority and not something left up to individual elections administrators. Again, if we are serious about this, we need to be talking details as soon as possible. We’ll see about that.

The Texas Democratic Party has called for all mail ballots for both the May primary runoffs and the regular May 2 election. I have no idea what is on the ballot on May 2 – as I said in the comments on my earlier post, there are no elections handled by the Harris County Clerk in May of even-numbered years. I’m fine with the concept, but it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The possibility of doing more vote by mail in November is also an entirely separate issue, one for which I’ve got a post in the works. For now, I think the primary runoffs are the main concern.

What should we do about the runoffs?

With coronavirus concerns now shutting down all kinds of public events and other large gatherings, it’s more than fair to wonder what the risks are of conducting the primary runoffs in the usual fashion. This post on Indivisible Houston suggests a path forward.

Runoff elections are coming soon, and while I understand commercial events being cancelled, I am absolutely opposed to the cancellation of democracy. Unfortunately, if people are stuck inside for the next month or two, we may have either public health issues or fear weighing down voter turnout by keeping people from going to the polls unless they are eligible to vote by mail.

One approach we may be able to take as a state to ensure people can vote is to demand access to vote by mail for all residents. The Governor of Texas can likely make that happen by a state of emergency or special session. Harris County and other counties can also advocate for such a solution or similar solutions; our county clerk, county attorney, and commissioners court are capable of coming up with a game plan, too.

I understand this is not the foremost concern for everyone in the county because we’re all trying to make sure our county is healthy and that people have their basic needs met. But I also think it’s important to protect democracy. The ballot is too important to be denied, even amidst chaos.

If you agree with me, please call the Governor’s office, your state rep, and your county level officials to demand a solution to the issue.
Below is a script and some of their information. You can call, email, tweet, or preferably do two or all three.

“Hello, my name is ________. I am a constituent and I want to encourage you to find solutions for our May runoff election that would allow all voters to vote by mail and otherwise ensure access to the polls in a way that accounts for the public health crisis.

Please tally my opinion.

Thank you.”

-Governor Greg Abbott – (512) 463-2000
https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx
@gregabbott_tx

-Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
713-274-7000
Twitter: @Lina4HC

-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
713-274-1000
@RodneyEllis

-Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
713-755-6220
@adriangarciahtx

-Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
713-755-6306

-Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
713-755-6444

-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman
713-274-8600
@dtrautman

Find your state rep and senator here and call them.

I should note up front that primary runoffs have much, much lower turnout (see item 4) than regular primaries. There won’t be any lines to vote in the runoffs. You’ll breeze in and out and may not see anyone but the election workers. That said, those election workers will see and interact with plenty of people over the course of the day, and of course we’ll all be using the same voting machines. Neither of those is a great idea in the time of pandemic, and it’s not at all hard to imagine that turnout could be suppressed even more than usual just from people’s natural fear of going to the polling places.

So given all that, switching to an all vote-by-mail primary runoff seems like an excellent way to mitigate the risk. Greg Abbott would have to call a special session to amend the existing law to allow for this, and I would hope that would be a notion that anyone could get behind. I mean, these are primary runoffs, so there’s no question of partisan advantage, just of public health. As a practical matter, this would have to be done by April 11, as that day is the deadline for sending out mail ballots to overseas voters. There’s time, but let’s not dilly-dally.

(And yes, there would be legit health concerns about getting all 181 legislators plus their staff and journalists and whoever else into the Capitol at this time. I don’t know what they can do to mitigate that. At least they can minimize the amount of time they’d have to all be in one room.)

Assuming that could be done, the next question would be how to get the mail ballots out. Normally, people have to request a mail ballot, if they are eligible. Both parties have programs to help people with that, but this is a much bigger scope, and also a more complex one since anyone who voted in March can only vote in the same party’s runoff. I would advocate that this law mandate that anyone who voted in Round One automatically be sent a mail ballot for the runoff, with anyone who didn’t vote in Round One being eligible to request whichever ballot they might want (as they are allowed to do). That would likely serve as an experiment in how much an all-vote-by-mail election would affect turnout, because I’d expect a lot of people who otherwise might have ignored the runoff would fill in their ballot and send it back. That might cause some heartburn in the Lege, especially (but maybe not exclusively) on the Republican side, and would likely be the biggest point of contention other than whether or not to do this at all. Also, counties might reasonably ask for some funding to cover all those mail ballots, as they would be expected to send out far more than they normally would, and someone has to pay for the postage and handling. I would argue the state should at least kick something in for that – there’s plenty of money available – but again, this would surely be a sore point for some.

(It may not be entirely up to us. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that would require all states to offer voters a vote-by-mail option, or to allow for the drop-off of hand-marked paper ballots, once 25 percent of states and/or territories declare a state of emergency related to the coronavirus. The bill would kick in $500 million in federal funding to help states make this happen. It likely has no chance of passing, though, and even if it did it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for our May 26 runoff. But at least someone else is thinking about it.)

Anyway. I’m convinced this is a good option – you should feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong about that – and should at least be up for discussion, if not action. And I agree, if you think this is a good idea, now would be the time to make some calls and express that opinion to Abbott and your legislators. Time is short, so get to it now or forever lose the chance.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Trautman apologizes for the long lines

A very good start.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman is taking “full responsibility” for the long lines and wait times that bogged down election night voting and forced some voters to wait more than six hours to cast their ballots.

In a statement released Friday, Trautman, the Democrat who oversees elections in Harris County, apologized to voters affected by the excessively long lines experienced at voting sites serving mostly black and Hispanic communities and said her office would reevaluate how to distribute voting machines across the county.

“It is clear that the history of marginalized communities being left behind in the voting process has led to polling deserts in areas of Harris County,” Trautman wrote. “I believe that we have made some strides, but we still have work left to do.”

[…]

On Friday, Trautman said her office had done “the best with what we had” but committed to rethinking voting machine allocations. In a previous interview with The Texas Tribune, Trautman indicated the county would likely try to purchase additional equipment for the November election.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the full statement. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a vocal critic of the lines on Tuesday, reacted positively to the Trib story, which is a good sign. Again, I think the main thing here is to solicit feedback from as many people and organizations involved in the process as possible, and really listen to their input and make a plan to implement as much of it as reasonably possible. I also think the HCDP and the many clubs and activist groups should think long and hard about what they can do to assist in this as well. We all have a stake in the outcome, after all.

One thing to keep in mind for November is that historically, in the even-numbered years, the share of turnout in early voting is much higher than it is in other elections, and much higher than the share of Election Day voting:


Year     Mail    Early    E-Day   Early%
========================================
2008   67,612  678,449  442,670    62.8%
2010   55,560  392,140  351,288    56.0%
2012   76,090  700,982  427,100    64.5%
2014   71,994  307,288  308,736    55.1%
2016  101,594  883,977  353,327    73.6%
2018   98,709  767,162  354,000    71.0%

That said, that’s still a lot more people voting on Election Day than we had this Tuesday. Fortunately, there will be many more E-Day polling locations, and no restrictions on the machines. As such, to a great extent and barring any unforeseen catastrophes, the problem will largely take care of itself. That of course is not the point. Having the November election run smoothly and without this kind of problem is a necessary condition to restore faith in the Clerk’s office, but it’s not sufficient. Demonstrating in word and deed that the Clerk understands the problem and has a well-thought out plan that the community believes in to fix it, that’s what we need. Diane Trautman took steps towards that on Friday. New let’s keep it going. The Chron has more.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

2020 primary results: President

Before we get to the numbers, one last word about polls. As we know, polls released over the weekend were quite favorable to Bernie Sanders. However, there was more polling done since then, and both nationally and in Texas there was a big swing back towards Joe Biden. Obviously, a lot of votes were already baked in thanks to early voting, but there was still a lot more voting to do. And with that, we can sum up what happened in two more tweets:

You want another illustration of that, here’s the Bexar County early vote – Bernie has 25,847 and Biden 14,289. Now here’s Bexar County Election Day, and with about two-thirds of the vote in, it’s Biden 18,682 and Bernie 17,685. Yeah.

This was a very big night for Joe Biden, who won most of the Super Tuesday primaries (with the caveat that California’s vote-by-mail ballots will take several days to count) and who may have vaulted into the delegate lead by the time you read this. Michael Bloomberg is likely to drop out today, and while it may not be the end of the line for Elizabeth Warren, you feel like you can see it from here. (Full disclosure: I voted for Warren.) If nothing else, we have a lot more clarity now.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Six questions for today’s voting

In some semblance of an order…

1. How will the early vote differ from the Tuesday vote? I’m mostly talking about the Presidential race here. We strongly suspect today will be a very big day at the ballot box, in part because people have been waiting, to see what the latest developments have been, before deciding, You know, so they don’t accidentally vote for a candidate who has dropped out, or one who seems unlikely to get any delegates. Bernie has the poll surge, Biden has the South Carolina surge, which has earned him a number of late endorsements. Which will have the greater effect?

2. Who finishes second in the Senate primary? Every single poll has MJ Hegar in the lead, sometimes by a few points, sometimes by a significant margin, with every other candidate in a pack after her. None of the other candidates has raised much money, and in each of the recent polls at least one of the no-money-at-all candidates has been up in the high single digits, ahead of at least one candidate who has an actual campaign. If I had to guess I’d say Royce West and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez have the edge for the second runoff slot, but in a race with 12 candidates and where fifteen percent might be enough to finish second, who knows?

3. What surprises are out there? Here I’m mostly thinking of the Congressional primaries for the DCCC-targeted seats where there’s one candidate with a lot more money than the others: CD02, CD21, CD22, CD23, and CD24. Do the candidates with the most money win, or at least lead the pack, or does that matter less in a year where turnout is super high and voters may not know as much about the non-Presidential candidates?

4. Do we have to have the “insurgents versus establishment” debate again? There are a few races where that’s on the menu, at least in a high profile way. I’ll check back on that sometime after tomorrow, I don’t feel like it right now.

5. How random is the bottom of the ballot? We have a lot of judicial races in Harris County, and in the primaries where you don’t have a party label to give you some guidance, we have a lot of voters who know diddly squat about a lot of these candidates. Here in Harris County, we have a number of challengers to sitting District Court judges, some of whom are more serious than others (the same can be said about the incumbents). Some candidates have racked up the endorsements and have been very visible, others not so much. Will there be any correlation between those who worked at is and those who won? History says at best a weak link, but maybe this year will be different.

6. Will the Republicans succeed at their diversity effort? They’d sure like to say they were successful. Maybe that’s good enough.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

Final 2020 primary early voting report: “Healthy but not historic”

Sounds about right.

Democratic primary voters surged to the polls in Harris County on Friday, surpassing turnout from 2016 but falling well short of their record-setting performance in 2008.

Republican primary voters, meanwhile, turned out in larger-than-expected numbers thanks to a handful of high-profile congressional and legislative contests. The result also could signal early enthusiasm among GOP voters for President Donald Trump’s re-election, experts and political strategists said.

A total of 139,533 Democratic primary voters returned mail ballots and voted in person across the 11-day early voting period that ended Friday. Though turnout did not match the roughly 177,000 early votes from Harris County’s 2008 Democratic primary, it easily outstripped 2016, when turnout reached 85,793.

“The turnout has been healthy but not historic, especially compared to 2008 when the numbers were massive,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That’s a good sign for Democrats, but it doesn’t signal tremendous growth in the Democratic electorate.”

The fluid state of the Democratic presidential primary may have dampened early voting turnout, with some voters awaiting results from Saturday’s South Carolina contest. The candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden is said to hinge on a strong showing there, while other lower-performing candidates could drop out between South Carolina and Super Tuesday, when Texas and 13 other states will hold their primaries.

The Republican primary, meanwhile, totaled 104,909 early and mail ballots — a massive uptick from the 2018 midterm cycle, but well below the roughly 131,000 who turned out early for the 2016 Republican contest.

Here are your final numbers. Here’s the Day Eleven report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after early voting ended:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2008   9,448  169,900  179,348
2012   7,735   30,142   37,877
2016  13,034   72,782   85,816
2018  17,744   70,172   87,916
2020  22,785  116,748  139,533

2008  15,174   51,201   66,375
2012  17,734   60,347   78,081
2016  20,780  110,365  131,145
2018  20,075   61,462   81,537
2020  22,801   82,108  104,909

The 2008 numbers come from the County Clerk historic results. It seems highly unlikely that Dems are going to get to my original over/under line of 500K, but 400K is still within reach. Remember that historically speaking, there’s likely still a lot of votes to be cast. If 61.5% of the total Democratic primary vote is cast on Tuesday, as it was in 2016, then final Dem turnout will be about 366K, with 223K of it being cast on Primary Day. There were 231K votes cast on Primary Day in 2008, with far fewer registered voters, so this is certainly within reach. To get to 410K, the high-water mark of 2008, about 64% of the total vote would need to be cast on Tuesday. I think that’s doable, but I was overly optimistic at the beginning of this cycle, so let’s try not to repeat that mistake. Dems should have no trouble surpassing the 227K total turnout from 2016, so at the very least this will be the second-heaviest primary this century so far.

Republicans have had a good showing as well, better than I would have expected. However:

Much more of the Republican electorate so far has been their old faithful, while a much bigger share of the Dem primary has been people with less of a Dem primary voting history. That said, given that the last three primaries were 2014, 2016, and 2018, there are fewer Dems who could have voted in all of those primaries since only 54K did so in 2014, while Republicans have had at least 139K from each of those years. Point being, the pool of folks who have voted in at least two of the last three Republican primaries is quite a bit bigger than that same pool for Dems. That makes this sort of number more fun than informative.

More importantly, we can all agree that the number of Democrats who have shown up in November has been quite a big larger than the number of Republicans in Harris County in recent years. Primary turnout has no real correlation to November turnout – there’s just too much variance, and the sample size is too small. Remember, Republicans crushed Democrats in primary turnout in 2016 (329K to 227K) and were near parity in 2018 (156K to 167K), and we know how those years ended up.

Finally, using the Secretary of State turnout tracker, 1,085,065 Republicans had voted early in the primary, while 1,000,231 Dems had done so with a couple of smaller counties still unaccounted for as of Saturday lunchtime. As with Harris County, I clearly underestimated Republicans statewide, but Dems are in position to at least come close to the historic 2008 numbers. The SOS doesn’t maintain early voting statewide numbers so I can’t say what the past looked like as I can for Harris County, but I’d say two million total is well within reach, and 2.5 million is possible. I’ll try to take a closer look at some of these numbers for tomorrow. Let me know what you think. Have you voted yet?

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Ten: Come hell or high water

Yesterday was quite the day, wasn’t it? People did still vote, which is nice. Here’s the Day Ten report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Ten:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   6,772   23,384   30,156
2016  12,152   53,302   65,455
2018  16,532   53,744   70,276
2020  21,658   82,365  104,023

2012  16,164   48,239   64,403
2016  18,878   79,276   98,154
2018  18,848   46,560   65,408
2020  21,340   65,783   87,123

Despite the ginormous water main break that shut down much of the city, including four early voting locations, people did still vote. Maybe not quite as much as they would have without the East Loop turning into a river, but they did still vote. At this current pace, we’re well ahead of 2016 but sufficiently behind 2008 that I’m not sure we’ll make it to that level. But maybe still a lot of folks waiting till Tuesday, perhaps to see what happens in South Carolin first. I’ll have the final results tomorrow, and I’ll do some deeper analysis on Sunday or Monday. Have you voted yet?

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Nine

Getting close to the finish line here. Two more days of early voting to go. Here’s the Day Nine report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Four:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   6,434   19,628   26,062
2016  11,755   42,169   53,924
2018  15,126   43,322   58,448
2020  19,400   66,318   85,718

2012  14,435   40,579   55,014
2016  17,966   63,082   81,048
2018  17,696   38,674   56,370
2020  20,393   55,489   75,882

Some real separation between Dems and Republicans now, and we still haven’t seen a really big day, though as expected Wednesday was bigger than Tuesday. Let’s take another look statewide, courtesy of Derek Ryan:

Yesterday, I made a comment about how we could see large numbers of people show up to vote on the last day of early voting and on Election Day too. I had someone reach out to ask how many people typically vote early versus on Election Day, so I ran some numbers on old versions of the voter file I have from previous election cycles.

In the 2016 Democratic Primary, I show 56.7% people as having voted on Election Day, 4.9% voting by mail, and 38.4% during early voting.

In the 2016 Republican Primary, I show 57.9% people as having voted on Election Day, 2.8% voting by mail, and 39.3% during early voting.

Through yesterday, the Secretary of State reports that through yesterday 656,572 people have voted in the Republican Primary and 536,005 have voted in the Democratic Primary. (These numbers are for all 254 counties.)

He’s referring to the data through Tuesday. You can see that here. I did my own calculation of early-versus-Election Day turnout in Harris County, and it’s consistent with these statewide numbers. Dems are on track for a big number in Harris County, but unless today and tomorrow are huge, and/or Tuesday the 3rd is bigger than expected, we’re on track to fall short of my 500K prediction. Still, past history shows that people do wait till Primary Day, and with South Carolina voting on Saturday, it would not be a surprise if more of them than usual were choosing to wait. It would be a stretch, but Dems can still get to my number. Let’s see what today looks like first.

As a reminder, since the question came up in the comments of Tuesday’s post, I don’t have the running daily totals from 2008, so I can’t do the same comparison for that year. The final EV tally from 2008 was 179,345, and then another 231K showed up on Primary Day. That’s what we’ll need to improve on in order to reach my estimate.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Eight: It starts to turn upward

Here’s the Day Eight report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Four:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,695   16,671   22,366
2016  10,970   34,419   45,389
2018  12,914   36,185   49,099
2020  18,503   54,325   72,828

2012  12,705   34,660   47,365
2016  16,435   49,702   66,137
2018  15,512   32,402   47,914
2020  19,690   47,271   66,961

Another best day for the Dems, who put a bit of space between themselves and the Republicans. I don’t have any brilliant insight beyond that, but we’re headed for a big finish. Have you voted yet?

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Seven

And we’re back at it. Here’s the Day Seven report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Four:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,609   14,063   19,672
2016  10,180   28,367   38,547
2018  11,207   30,064   41,271
2020  16,651   44,339   60,990

2012  12,535   29,508   42,043
2016  14,683   40,547   55,230
2018  13,812   26,959   40,771
2020  18,949   39,207   58,156

A big mail day for the Republicans keeps them close to even with the Dems, who had their best in person day (by 100) and their best overall day not counting Day One (by 300). The usual pattern is for small gains on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the big step on Thursday and Friday.

What’s going on statewide? Let’s see what Derek Ryan had to say Monday.

Someone reached out and asked what turnout looked like compared to 2016. I was only able to compare the top 15 largest counties to this same point in 2016. Interestingly enough, the number of voters in the 2020 Republican Primary is larger than it was at this point in 2016 (225,826 vs 212,142). The current turnout percent is 2.1% in these counties in the Republican Primary.

I was honestly a little surprised that the total numbers were up since there is no contested presidential race in the Republican Primary this cycle. So, for comparison, I looked at the turnout in the 2012 Democratic Primary when President Obama was basically unopposed in his bid to be the Democratic nominee for a second term. Turnout at this point in 2012 was only 1.3%. (One reason turnout is higher this year in the Republican Primary compared to the 2012 Democratic Primary is the number of contested primaries for congressional seats.)

On the Democratic side, turnout is up significantly over 2016 in the top counties. Over 100,000 more people have voted in the Democratic Primary in 2020 than voted at this point in 2016 (271,377 vs. 170,839). The current turnout percent is 2.6%.

Click over to see a chart comparing the early vote so far in the top 15 counties from 2016 to 2018, as well as his Day 6 analysis. I’ve been curious about how much the top 15 counties’ turnout represents for each party, so I put together this table:


Year D   Big 15      Total  Big 15%
===================================
2016  1,062,607  1,423,895    74.0%
2020    271,377    374,320    72.5%

Year R   Big 15      Total  Big 15%
===================================
2016  1,527,315  2,836,488    53.8%
2020    225,826    464,569    48.6%

The 2016 numbers in each case are final totals, and the 2020 numbers are what we have so far. You’d expect that Dems get most of their turnout from the big counties, while Republicans get a lot of theirs from the other counties. I find it somewhat encouraging that Dems are getting a slightly larger share of their primary vote from the other counties, and I find it interesting that Republicans’ share of turnout from the big counties has dropped as much as it appears to have. I’m presenting this for entertainment value only, as we can really only compare the final totals for each, so just enjoy it for now and we’ll check it again later.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Six: On to Week Two

We’re back from the weekend, where the only votes tallied are in-person. We have five more days of early voting to go. Here’s the Day Six report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Four:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,609   11,880   17,489
2016   8,850   23,384   32,234
2018   9,620   24,335   33,955
2020  15,101   36,712   51,813

2012  12,111   25,097   37,208
2016  12,205   32,641   44,846
2018  12,642   21,856   34,498
2020  16,528   32,630   49,158

Democrats had 11,538 voters on Saturday and Sunday combined, Republicans had 7,852. Week Two is where it should start getting busier. Dems have fallen behind their earlier pace, as they now have increased their 2016 vote by about 61%; Republicans are ahead of 2016 by about eight percent. I think things will pick back up this week, but if we want to guess final turnout, the great unknown is how much of the vote will be cast early, and how much will show up on Tuesday, March 3. There’s no obvious pattern in recent primaries:


Year     Mail    Early    E-Day   E-Day%
========================================
2008    9,445  169,900  231,560    56.4%
2010    7,193   33,770   60,300    59.5%
2012    8,775   30,136   35,575    47.8%
2014    8,961   22,727   22,100    41.1%
2016   14,828   72,777  139,675    61.5%
2018   22,695   70,152   75,135    44.7%

E-Day% is the share of the vote cast on Primary Day. In the two high-turnout Presidential-year primaries, more than half the vote was cast on Primary Day. My gut says we’ll see similar behavior this year, but whether it’s 55% of the vote on Primary Day or over 60%, I don’t know. We’ll take a shot at guessing final turnout another day. Have you voted yet?

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Four: First Friday

We are at the end of the first business week, shortened by the holiday on Monday. It’s been a brisk week, especially compared to other years, but there should be a lot more to come. Here’s the Day Four report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Four:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,609    8,542   14,151
2016   8,850   14,554   23,404
2018   8,844   16,110   24,954
2020  15,101   25,254   40,355

2012  12,111   18,643   30,754
2016  12,205   21,348   33,553
2018  12,530   15,515   28,045
2020  16,528   24,778   41,306

A large number of Republican mail ballots being returned push them into the lead so far. More Dems have voted in person, and more Dem mail ballots remain to be returned than Republican mail ballots (23K to 15K). Democrats have had a bigger jump in turnout from 2016, but they had a lower base to start with. I’m seeing more or less what I expected from Dems, but more Republicans are turning out than I thought would. We’ll see how that continues.

By the way, I combined Days Four and Five from 2012 in this report. Unlike the 2016 and 2018, the 2012 primary was in May (remember that?), so that year the first week of early voting was a full first week. All the totals you see now are through the Friday of that year.

It’s been a long week and I don’t have it in me to do much analysis. I’ll have more tomorrow. Have you voted yet?

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Three: Midweek meandering

I don’t have any clever openings today, so once again let’s just jump right in. Here’s the Day Three report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Three:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,209    4,962   10,171
2016   8,167   10,231   18,398
2018   7,641   10,896   18,537
2020  13,793   17,731   31,524

2012  11,430   10,205   21,635
2016  11,087   14,869   25,956
2018  11,558   10,243   21,801
2020  13,944   16,833   30,777

The Dems have almost caught up in mail ballots returned, while the two parties remain close in overall turnout. Dems still have about 25K mail ballots out, while Republicans have 17K still out. Dems are running more than 70% higher than they were in 2016, while Republicans are a bit below 20% ahead of their 2016 pace. The first week is usually pretty consistent day to day, it’s on Saturday and in week 2 that we really start to see stuff happen.

I shared a number of analyses from the 2018 election by Derek Ryan, a Republican analyst who did a lot of very useful public number crunching during the early voting period. He’s back with a closer look at the 2020 primaries so far. Here he is after Day Two (via his daily emails):

The average age of a Republican Primary early voter is 62.5, while the average age of a Democratic Primary early voter is 53.6. This is the average for in-person voters only (ballot by mail voters skew the averages up).

4.3% of the voters in the Democratic Primary are people who have previous Republican Primary history, but have not voted in a Democratic Primary in the last four election cycles. Some of these crossover voters could be due to the contested presidential primary. As a comparison, Democrats with no previous Republican Primary history made up 7.0% of the votes cast in the contested 2016 Republican Primary.

While it isn’t one of the top 30 largest counties, I would like to mention that my favorite county, Loving County, has seen seven people show up to vote in the Republican or Democratic Primary.

You can see his report here. As he notes, thanks to a new law passed last year, all counties are required to send their daily EV data to the Secretary of State, and you can see it all here. Pick the election you want, choose the most recent date, and submit for the whole state. Vote rosters for each county are also included. The new additional data makes direct comparisons to previous years impossible, since all we had before were the top 15 counties, but if you want to see what that looked like after two days in 2016, see here.

As of Day Two, there were 203,984 GOP early votes, and 160,353 Dem votes. I predicted way more Dem votes than Republican, which so far isn’t the case. I do think there’s something to the theory that Dems are waiting a bit to see what happens in Nevada and South Carolina, but even with that I clearly underestimated the Republicans. That said, Dem turnout is definitely up, even just looking at the counties where we can make direct comparisons. I’ll do a closer look at that in a day or two.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day One: Off to a quick start

And we’re off.

On an overcast and drizzly day in much of Texas, early voting for the 2020 primary elections in some of the state’s most populous counties was up over turnout four years ago, despite warnings by political watchers that an ever-shifting Democratic presidential race might keep some voters at home as they wait for other states’ results.

By about 6 p.m., almost 7,000 people in Tarrant County had cast ballots, already more than the 6,908 that voted on the first day of early voting in the 2016 primaries.

By that time in Harris County, the more than 10,000 people had voted across 52 early voting locations was up significantly from the 7,840 in-person ballots from the first day of the 2016 primaries.

In Bexar, more than 8,000 had voted in person by Tuesday evening — up from 6,118 from Day 1 of early voting in 2016. About 6,000 had voted in Travis County by 4:45 p.m., up from 4,984 in 2016.

[…]

Some Democrats may be staying away from the polls as they hold out for the results of upcoming primaries in Nevada on Feb. 22 and South Carolina on Feb. 29, said Renee Cross, senior director at the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs.

Primary outcomes have the potential to upend the dynamics of a race. After the New Hampshire alone last week, three candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Michael Bennet and Andrew Yang — dropped out.

“Given the volatility of this primary for the Democrats, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a much higher than usual strategic voter turnout,” Cross said.

We usually get the bulk of early voting towards the end of the EV period, in particular the last two days, so that’s not unusual. Perhaps it will be more pronounced this year. In any event, the figures cited by the Chron are for both parties combined – we won’t know what the D versus R numbers are until we see the reports from each county. And note that these numbers are for in person voting. There’s also mail ballots:

To be fair, Dems didn’t really do mail ballots in 2008. It’s still impressive. Here’s the Day One report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. As of Day One from those years :


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   4,644    1,570    6,214
2016   6,344    3,292    9,636
2018   4,174    3,833    8,007
2020  11,571    6,819   18,390

2012  10,027    3,380   13,407
2016   8,172    4,548   12,720
2018   6,138    3,509    9,547
2020  12,890    5,411   18,301

So just on mail ballots, 2020 D is greater than 2016 D. In person turnout is slightly ahead of 2016, which had a final total of 227,280. We’ll have to pick things up to meet my prediction, but if the hypothesis that some folks will be waiting to see how Nevada and South Carolina go holds true, the opportunity to do so will be there. I myself will probably vote later this week. What was your experience if you voted, and what’s your plan if you haven’t done so yet?

Five questions for the primary

Five questions I thought of, anyway. With my own answers, some of which are admittedly on the weaselish side. Feel free to discuss/disagree/ask your own questions/etc.

1. What kind of turnout are we going to have?

The short answer is “a lot”. Texas doesn’t always get to be a part of a contested Presidential primary, but when we are, we go to the polls. Dems in 2008 and Republicans in 2016 both topped 2.8 million voters – hell, more Dems voted in the 2008 primary than in the 2004 general election. I think the bidding on the Dem side starts at 3 million, with at least 500K in Harris County (we had 410K in 2008). I think 3.5 million is in play, which means a lot of first-time Dem voters. It’s going to be really interesting to see people’s voting histories in VAN after this.

2. What does this mean for all of the other races on the ballot?

It’s really hard to say. I feel like when turnout is super low, it levels the field a bit for those who are challenging incumbents or maybe haven’t raised a ton of money because the electorate is limited to the hardcore faithful, who probably know more about the candidates, or at least pay attention to endorsements and stuff like that. In a normal high turnout environment, I figure incumbents and candidates who have raised more money have the edge, since they’re better positioned to be known to the voters. In a super high turnout election, where a significant number of people won’t be all that familiar with the many names before them, who knows? I still think incumbents will be better off, but even the high-money candidates will have to fight for attention as most voters are tuned into the Presidential race. I really don’t feel comfortable making any predictions. At least the number of goofball candidates is pretty low, so even with the likelihood of some random results, there don’t appear to be any Gene Kellys or Jim Hogans out there.

That said, some number of people who vote will just be voting in the Presidential race, so the topline turnout number will be higher, maybe a lot higher, than the size of the electorate downballot. I went and looked at primary turnout in recent elections to see what this factor looks like:


Year    President  Next Most    % Pres
======================================
2004 D    839,231    605,789     72.2%
2004 R    687,615    567,835     82.6%

2008 D  2,874,986  2,177,252     75.8%
2008 R  1,362,322  1,223,865     89.8%

2012 D    590,164    497,487     84.3%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,406,648     97.0%

2016 D  1,435,895  1,087,976     75.8%
2016 R  2,836,488  2,167,838     76.4%

“President” is the number of votes cast in that Presidential primary race, “Next Most” is the next highest vote total, which was in the Senate primaries in 2008 and 2012 and in either the Railroad Commissioner or a Supreme Court race otherwise, and “% Pres” is the share of the highest non-Presidential total. Some people could have voted for President and then skipped to a Congressional race or some other non-statewide contest, but this is a reasonable enough approximation of the dropoff. Bear in mind that context matters as well. In 2004, none of the Dem statewide primaries were contested, which likely meant more people skipped those races. The infamous Senate primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst and other lesser candidates was in 2012, which is why nearly everyone also voted in that race. All but one of the Dem statewide races are contested, though none are as high profile as 2012 R Senate – we may never see a race like that again.

So my best guess would be that if 3 million people vote in the Dem Presidential primary, somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.4 million people will then vote in the Senate and other statewide primaries. That’s still a lot, but the downballot races will have a slightly more engaged electorate as a result.

3. What about that Presidential primary?

Again, who knows? The polling evidence we have is mixed. Before the UT/Trib poll, the evidence we had said that Joe Biden was the leading candidate, though whether he has a big lead or a small lead over Bernie Sanders depends on which poll you’re looking at. Throw that UT/Trib poll in there, and maybe he doesn’t have a lead at all. Who knows?

The primaries that take place between now and March 3 will have an effect as well – candidates may gain or lose momentum before March 3. Bear in mind, though, that a whole lot of Texas primary voting will happen before either the Nevada caucus or the South Carolina primary happen, so the effect from those states will be limited. And Texas is one of many states voting on Super Tuesday, so candidates can’t just camp here, they have other states to worry about as well. They do all have campaign presences, however, with some of them having been here for months. Finally, quite a few candidates who have already dropped out, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro will still be on the ballot and will get some number of votes. That UT/Trib poll still had Andrew Yang in it, and he polled at six percent, higher than Amy Klobuchar. There are a lot of moving parts here.

To me, the X factor in all this is Michael Bloomberg, who has been carpet-bombing the airwaves (seriously, where do I go to surrender?) and has been ramping up his field presence in a way that other candidates may have a hard time matching. He was basically tied for third or just behind third but still super close in the UT-Tyler poll, and fourth in the UT/Trib poll, in double digits in each case. I won’t be surprised if these polls underestimate his strength. I mean, he sure seems like a candidate positioned to do quite well among those less-frequent Dem voters, and if your top priority is beating Trump, he did quite well on that score in the UT-Tyler poll, too. He’s now getting some establishment support, too. To say the least, Bloomberg is a problematic candidate, and the inevitable round of scrutiny of his baggage may drag him back down, but if you’re not prepared for the possibility that Bloomberg could do quite well in Texas in March, you’re not paying attention.

4. What about the runoffs?

Three statewide races – Senate, RRC, and Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – as well as 15 Congressional races have at least three candidates and could go to runoffs, plus who knows how many other downballot contests. Runoffs generally get far less attention and participation than the main event, but this could be a year where a reasonable share of the initial vote turns out again in May.

Because that’s the kind of person I am, I looked at the recent history of primary runoff turnout. Here you go:


Year    President     Runoff    % Pres
======================================
2004 R    687,615    223,769     32.5%

2008 D  2,874,986    187,708      6.5%

2012 D    590,164    236,305     40.0%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,111,938     76.7%

2016 D  1,435,477    188,592     13.1%
2016 R  2,836,488    376,387     13.3%

There were no statewide runoffs in 2004 for Dems (those races were all uncontested) or in 2008 for Republicans. We already know that the 2012 GOP Senate race is a unicorn, and you can see another dimension of that here. There was a Senate runoff in 2012 on the Dem side as well, and that’s the high water mark for turnout in the modern era. This Senate race isn’t that high profile, but I think there will be some money in it, and there will be some Congressional races of interest, so maybe 300K or 400K in May for Dems? I’m totally guessing, but it wouldn’t shock me if we hit a new height this year. The bar to clear is not at all high.

5. What about the Republicans?

What about them? This is basically a 2004 year for them – incumbent President, a super low-key Senate race, no other statewide races of interest, with a few hot Congressional races being the main driver of turnout. They’ll have several of those to finish up in May as well, but my guess is they top out at about a million in March, and don’t reach 200K in May. There just isn’t that much to push them to the polls at this time.

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

Chron overview of the HD142 primary

Also known as the How Mad Are People At Harold Dutton? primary.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton is facing the most serious re-election test of his 35-year political career in an acrimonious primary against two Democratic opponents.

The race, which has generated few headlines but produced ample tension between the candidates, pits Dutton against Houston District B Councilman Jerry Davis and transportation logistics executive Richard Bonton. A fourth candidate, Natasha Ruiz, does not appear to have a campaign website and has yet to file any campaign finance reports.

Imperiling Dutton’s re-election is a well-funded challenge from Davis, who since 2012 has represented much of the same northeast Houston territory as Dutton, including Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and Trinity/Houston Gardens.

The candidacy of Bonton, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2018, also raises the prospect that Dutton could be forced into a runoff for the first time since his initial run for the seat in 1984, said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

“I think it’s a very competitive race,” Adams said. “Harold is a long-standing incumbent, but that cuts both ways, because Jerry has a lot of recognition from his city council races.”

Nothing has drawn more attention in the race than Dutton’s role in crafting a 2015 law that requires the Texas Education Agency to penalize a district if any of its schools fails state standards for five consecutive years by closing the school or replacing the school board.

[…]

Dutton shrugs off the criticism over HISD, noting that the law received widespread bipartisan support when it sailed through the Legislature five years ago.

“I stand by it totally,” Dutton said. “I just couldn’t in good faith sit there and do nothing while these students linger in the education toilet. HISD, like most school districts, could have taken the opportunity to fix the schools. That’s what could have happened and should have happened, but didn’t happen.”

I just don’t know what to make of this one. It’s certainly the strongest challenge Rep. Dutton has faced in a long time – he made it through the Craddick years without being targeted – I just don’t know how much people will hold the TEA takeover stuff against him. He’s right, the bill had broad support when it passed, and there’s certainly a case that if a school continues to struggle year after year, it’s being failed by its district as much as anything else. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much money, he probably doesn’t have much of a field operation (since he’s never needed to have one, and he’s far from the first name you think of when you think of team players in the countywide campaign), and he doesn’t have much in the way of establishment organizational support. Labor has mostly sided with Davis (with the exception of the Texas State Teachers Association, which may see him as a friendly incumbent), as has the GLBT Caucus, while HBAD has endorsed Bonton, and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats co-endorsed Bonton with Dutton. Maybe the high expected turnout will help him, as he’s likely the best known name on the ballot even after Davis has won three elections, and maybe less-frequent voters will feel less affinity for him. I really have no idea. If you live in the district and have seen the campaign activity there, please leave a comment.

Speaking of voter registration

The Chron notes the latest milestone.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

For the first time in history, Texas has topped 16 million registered voters and is adding voters faster than its population grows heading into the 2020 presidential election.

With the voter registration deadline for the March 3 primaries just two weeks away, the state is already on the brink of having 2 million more registered voters than it did just four years ago when President Donald Trump was first elected.

“What you’re seeing is a true transformation of the Texas electorate,” said Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt, a voter advocacy group focused on registering young Latino voters and getting them involved in politics.

He said despite all the barriers Texas has put in place to depress voter registration and voter turnout, groups like his are drawing younger and more diverse voters, which is making the politics of Texas more reflective of its demographics — about 40 percent of the state’s population is Latino, census data shows.

Since 2017, the population in Texas has grown by about 5 percent. But the state’s voter registration has grown about 8 percent during that period. The increase is even more dramatic in urban areas such as Harris County, the state’s most populous county. While Harris County’s population has grown an estimated 4 percent since 2014, its voter registration has jumped 14 percent.

In Bexar County the population has grown an estimated 11 percent since 2014, while the voter registration has jumped 19 percent.

[…]

While Texas doesn’t require voters to register by party, Texas Democratic Party officials say their internal data shows that the voter gains are largely due to voters that skew their way — younger and more diverse.

Cliff Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party, said as the state has looked more competitive with each election, that in turn has drawn even more younger and diverse voters to sign up, which then makes the state still more competitive. In other words, the success begets more success, he said.

See here for the background. The correlation with the growth in urban voter registration is no surprise. I’ve tracked the Harris County numbers before, and while the surge in statewide voter registration lags a bit behind, it’s all happened in the last couple of years. Which, not coincidentally, is when Democrats and Dem-aligned groups have made voter registration a priority and really put a bunch of resources into it. That latter bit is key, because registering voters in Texas is even harder than you thought.

In 2013, former campaign operatives who worked with President Barack Obama launched a group called Battleground Texas. The mission was to more aggressively register voters in Texas, a place that has a history of making it difficult to register to vote. That was a tall task, given a 2011 Texas law that significantly toughened voter registration rules to require people wanting to register voters to go through county-specific voter registrar training; the law also blocked non-Texans from joining that work.

So to register voters statewide, a volunteer would be forced to attend 254 different trainings. Texas also does not accept online voter registration applications — the paperwork must include a handwritten signature, and that signature cannot be a copy, digital signature or photo of a signature.

But slowly Battleground Texas and other groups started to make headway. Other groups have joined the cause, with Jolt, The Lone Star Project and Be One Texas among them.

This strategy also includes litigation, over things like the “motor voter” law and electronic signatures, but those won’t yield any fruit for this election. In a sane world, voter registration would be easy, but this is Texas. We have to do it the hard way. Put fixing all this on the agenda for when Dems finally control state government.

One more thing, which I have discussed but which I don’t see get mentioned in other stories, is that boosting registration totals is by itself a turnout program. I’ll say again, turnout as a percentage of registered voters was down in Harris County in 2016 compared to 2008, but because there were so many more registered voters the total number of folks who showed up increased. Statewide turnout in 2016 was 59.39%, for 8,969,226 total voters. Taking the 16,106,984 number we have now – and remember, that will go up some more before the primary deadline – and at the same 59.39% turnout rate you get 9,565,937 voters, or 600K more. If the 18 million goal is reached, that puts turnout at 10.7 million if the rate is the same. Now of course there’s no guarantee of reaching the same rate – as was the case in Harris County, the statewide turnout rate in 2008 (59.50%) was higher than it was in 2016 – my point is that you can catch more fish with a bigger net. Add in a real turnout push on top of that, and who knows what can happen. It all starts with getting more people registered.

The Democrats’ voter registration strategy

From the Texas Signal:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

[Last] Monday, the Texas Democratic Party announced the largest voter registration program in the history of the state. This massive effort will be done in conjunction with Fair Fight, a voting rights organization started by Stacey Abrams.

“Fair Fight is proud to partner with the Texas Democratic Party to fund, train and support a robust voter protection initiative through our Fair Fight 2020 initiative,” Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Fair Fight, told ABC News. “Republicans in Texas have, for a long time, sought to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color, and it takes a dedicated voter protection team on the ground well before Election Day to make sure all Texans’ voices can be heard.”

[…]

To get Texans voting, the Texas Democratic Party and Fair Fight will seek to register 2.6 million potential new Democrats through machine-learning-based models, a year-round voter assistance hotline, hundreds of thousands of registration applications sent by mail, and 1,000 organizers and canvassers on the ground.

That’s a lot of voters, and this is a very ambitious project. It’s worth putting some numbers on all this, so let’s hit the highlights from the TDP press release:

More highlights from the programs include:

  • We are going to have 1,000 field organizers and canvassers on the ground in 2020.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is gearing up to mail hundreds of thousands of voter registration applications to unregistered voters across the state.

  • We’re launching a year-round voter assistance hotline.

  • We are building machine-learning-based models to quickly identify the partisanship-leaning of new and low propensity voters so that campaigns can mobilize Democratic voters.

  • We are hiring dedicated staff to engage every part of our Democratic coalition — including our AAPI, African-American, Latinx, LGBTQ+, youth, and Disability communities — and to narrow the gap in rural committees.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is working alongside fellow Democratic organizations to ensure these young voters are pinpointed for voter registration and mobilization.

By the numbers:

  • We anticipate the voter rolls will swell to upwards of 18,000,000 registered voters in 2020.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is focused on registering the estimated 2,600,000 Texans who are likely to vote Democratic if they register to vote.

  • At the congressional level, we estimate there are 495,000 potential new Democrats in the eight DCCC-targeted districts.

  • We estimate 210,000 potential new Democrats in the 12 state house districts that flipped in 2018. Additionally, there are 315,000 potential new Democrats in 18 targeted State House districts for 2020.

This accompanying document goes into more detail, and it’s worth reading through. One useful tidbit noted was that a smaller version of this registered 133,000 new voters in the 2018 cycle, and 120,000 of them turned out. That’s pretty good. There’s a bunch of charts in that last link, one of which shows voter registration totals over time, but to reiterate:

November 2008 = 13,575,062
November 2010 = 13,269,233
November 2012 = 13,646,226
November 2014 = 14,025,441
November 2016 = 15,101,087
November 2018 = 15,793,257
January 2020 = 16,106,984

Lot more growth in the last six years than in the first, but we’re still a long way from 18 million. Republicans of course are also seeking to register voters, which is rather a departure from past behavior on their part. I’d like to see some journalism about this effort in proportion to what I’ve seen about Engage Texas, and I’d very much like to see some followup reporting as the year goes along – we will see official registration numbers for March, at least – to see how this is proceeding. In the meantime, if you want to Do Something about 2020, helping out this effort would be an excellent place to start.

Precinct analysis: 2019 HD148 special election

I started this post while doing other precinct analysis stuff. Didn’t finish it with the others, but now that the legislative special election runoffs are next up on the calendar, I thought I’d finish it off. First, here’s how the main Mayoral candidates did in HD148:


Turner    9,631
Turner%  44.65%

Buzbee    6,280
Buzbee%  29.11%

King      2,947
King%    13.66%

Boykins   1,253
Boykins%  5.81%

Lovell      467
Lovell%   2.16%

Others      993
Others%   4.60%

Not actually all that different than how they did overall in Harris County. Mayor Turner was about 1.7 percentage points lower, while Sue Lovell gained 0.86 points. Oddly, it was the “Other” candidates who collectively gained the most, going from 3.72% overall to 4.60% in HD148, for a gain of 0.88 points. Keeping it weird, y’all.

Since I started this before the runoff, and even before the date for the HD148 runoff was set, I wondered what the effect might be of having Anna Eastman and Luis LaRotta slug it out at the same time as Mayor Turner and that other guy. I decided to zoom in on the best precincts for Eastman and LaRotta and see how the Mayorals did in them:


Eastman top 4

Eastman 1,557
LaRotta   557
Dem     1,508
GOP       547
Others  2,055

Turner  2,389
Buzbee    974
King      592
Others    370

LaRotta top 4

Eastman   242
LaRotta   600
Dem     1,006
GOP       515
Others  1,521

Turner    835
Buzbee  1,001
King      412
Others    245

Putting it another way, Anna Eastman’s best precincts were more Democratic, and more favorable to Turner, than LaRotta’s precincts were Republican and favorable to That Guy. Didn’t much matter in the end, but I was curious, and that’s what I learned.

Finally, there’s always the question of how much turnout efforts from one race can affect another. For sure, the Mayoral race was the big turnout driver in Houston in November, but as overall turnout was below thirty percent, there would still be plenty of people in HD148 who would normally vote in an even-year election, when this race is supposed to be on the ballot, but who may not vote in odd-year races. To try to get a handle on this, I looked at the undervote rate in the Mayor’s race in HD148, and compared it to the overall undervote rate for the Mayorals. In Harris County, 1.59% of the people who showed up to vote in November did not cast a ballot in the Mayor’s race. The undervote rate in the HD148 special was 5.87%, which is another way of saying it was the Mayor’s race that drove the majority of the action.

In the HD148 precincts, all of which are in the city of Houston, there were 22,001 total votes cast, according to the draft canvass sent to me by the County Clerk. That’s a smidge less than what you’ll see on the official election report, which is almost certainly a combination of cured provisional ballots (my canvass does not include provisional votes), split precincts (many voting precincts are partly in and partly not in the city of Houston, which makes all of the calculations I do that also involve non-city entities a little fuzzy), and whatever stupid errors I made with Excel. Be that as it may, of those 22,001 cast ballots, there were 387 non-votes in the Mayor’s race, for an undervote rate in the HD148 precincts of 1.76%, a hair higher than the overall undervote rate. If the voters in HD148 had skipped the Mayor’s race at the same rate as voters everywhere else in Harris County skipped it, there would have been only 350 Mayoral undervotes.

So, I’d say that the turnout effect of the HD148 special election was pretty small, since the voters in that race behaved very much like voters elsewhere. Perhaps if this had been a higher-profile race, with more money and a longer time on the ballot and a clearer partisan split – in other words, a race more like the HD28 special election – we might have seen more people who came out to vote for it and who had less interest in the other races, and thus a higher undervote rate in the Mayoral election. Sadly, we won’t know what that might look like at this time. I should note that I have no idea how many of the 1,288 non-voters in the HD148 special were also non-voters in the Mayoral race; there’s just no way to tell that from the data I have. Maybe some of those people were just there to vote for the Constitutional amendments, or the Metro referendum, or District H, or who knows what. I feel on reasonably firm ground saying that the turnout effect of the Mayor’s race was considerably higher than the turnout effect of the HD148 special election. Anything beyond that needs more study. You’re welcome.