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November 21st, 2012:

Dan Patrick wants to play doctor

Clearly, the man missed his calling.

Before Texas’ abortion sonogram law passed last legislative session, some women seeking to end pregnancies in rural communities relied on telemedicine, with physicians — working in partnership with medical technicians or nurses — administering prescription drugs via videoconference to induce early-stage abortions.

If new legislation filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, passes in 2013, women in remote corners of the state may have even fewer options to get the procedure.

2011’s abortion sonogram law — another measure Patrick championed — requires that a physician, as opposed to a technician or nurse, perform a sonogram on a woman seeking an abortion at least 24 hours ahead of the procedure. That in effect prohibits the use of telemedicine for drug-induced abortions, which opponents of the procedure call a welcome consequence for a little-discussed practice.

SB 97, Patrick’s latest measure, would further increase the in-person requirements for physicians. In addition to the in-person sonogram 24 hours ahead of the abortion, doctors would have to personally administer both of the two medications used for drug-induced abortions, and see the patient again for a follow-up appointment within 14 days, a particular challenge for the roving doctors who treat women in the state’s rural counties.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of the abortion provider Whole Women’s Health, said that before last session’s sonogram law took effect in February, her clinics in Beaumont, McAllen and Fort Worth relied on telemedicine. A technician would perform the sonogram and a physician based in Austin would review the patient’s medical records, then videoconference with the patient to answer any questions.

“Through telemedicine we were able to serve women in communities, mainly more rural communities, where access to abortion was much more difficult,” she said.

Silly woman. Don’t know you know Dan Patrick knows what’s best for you and your patients? Don’t make him have to pass a bill requiring his express written consent for anyone to get an abortion in this state, because he will if you make him mad enough. This would be a good time for those of you whose Senators are Eddie Lucio, Judith Zaffirini, or Carlos Uresti to start calling their offices and telling them not to vote to bring this travesty to the floor, like they did in 2011 with the sonogram bill. With the defeat of Jeff Wentworth, the last pro-choice Republican in the state, we’ll need at least two and possibly all three of them to stand with their fellow Democrats in opposing this, depending on when the election to succeed the late Mario Gallegos is concluded. This would also be a good time for so-called “moderates” like Sarah Davis to do something to earn that designation and actively oppose this ridiculous intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, instead of waiting till the bill comes to the floor of the House and casting a token vote against it.

Rodeo kicks in for tree replanting

Trail riders coming into Houston for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo traditionally camp overnight in Memorial Park on their way to the event. Last year they did this as many of the trees around them were dying from the drought. This year, the HSLR is giving back to help with that problem.

On Monday, [HSLR board chairman Steve] Stevens presented a $250,000 check from the rodeo to Mayor Annise Parker and Memorial Park Conservancy board chairman Jim Porter to help reforest the beloved park.

“For more than 50 years, thousands of trail riders have gathered in the park, so I thought this was a nice way to pay back,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to get it going again. The city and county are great to us. … This was the easiest thing we’ve approved this year.”

The donation is for reforestation, which will include planting thousands of trees in the park, said the conservancy’s Claire Caudill. However, before any major planting takes place, the conservancy and Houston Parks and Recreation must remove about 20,000 dead trees and create conditions that will ensure greater seedling success.

Nice. Other work that needs to be done prior to any planting includes getting rid of the various invasive species that have taken up residence in the park. The conservancy expects trees to be put in the ground beginning next November. Let’s hope the current dry conditions don’t make things worse between now and then.

How’s that GOP Latino outreach going?

There are issues.

On Election Day, it became clearer than ever how important Hispanics, as the fastest growing portion of the U.S. population, are to national political success. Republican Mitt Romney earned only 27 percent of Latinos’ support in his failed bid for the presidency.

Now, as Republicans in Texas examine Romney’s loss, they are confronting a serious conflict within their own ranks.

On one side, the party leadership wants to court Latinos with outreach efforts and a kinder message about immigration, which polls consistently show as one of the top issues among Hispanics.

“I just don’t want the party to be toast,” said Steve Munisteri, the Republican Party of Texas chairman, who has made the issue a top priority.

Meanwhile, a big part of the Republican base wants to keep driving the party’s ideology to the uber-conservative side of the political spectrum, which means passing tough immigration bills.

Katrina Pierson, a political activist and member of the Dallas Tea Party, said many of the rank-and-file Republicans want to see less pandering to an ethnic group and more work to pass strict immigration laws in Texas, laws like the one in Arizona that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people they think might be in the country illegally.

“It’s one thing to be inclusive,” Pierson said. “But it is another thing to abandon your principles.”

This is the conflict in a nutshell. Some GOP leaders like Steve Munisteri want the party to be more inclusive, or at least less inflammatory, but the rank and file ain’t buying it. The tell is that it’s very hard to win a Republican primary as anything but a hard-liner on immigration. I can’t say it’s “impossible”, I don’t follow GOP primaries closely enough to draw that broad a conclusion, but we all watched the Presidential primary, and we all saw Cruz versus Dewhurst. The people in the GOP who are talking about this are not being listened to by the people who vote in the GOP. And just as a reminder, “sanctuary cities” legislation will be a top priority this spring, as it was two years ago. In fact, a bill repealing the Texas DREAM Act that Rick Perry signed in 2001 and was raked over the coals for by Mitt Romney has already been filed, and the author of the failed 2011 “sanctuary cities” bill warns that what comes out of this year’s Lege “may turn out to be a much harsher bill”.

And even when legislation might not be seen as overtly hostile to Latinos, Democrats in the Texas Legislature have become adept at painting it as such. For example, Democrats portrayed as discriminatory the 2011 redistricting law, which Republicans say was meant simply to elect as many Republicans as possible, not hamper minorities’ voting power. And Democrats cast the GOP-led voter ID effort as discriminatory, even though lawmakers who supported it said it was a common-sense move to protect the sanctity of the ballot.

Of course, the DC federal court also said that the redistricting and voter ID bills were discriminatory in intent and effect, so there’s more to this than just a “some people say” media dodge. Everyone can say what they want about these bills, Democrats have two federal court rulings on their side.

Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor , said messaging is important, but Texas Republicans need to do more than adjust their words and pass a guest worker plank, if they want to remain relevant.

“If that’s what they are doing, that’s dumb politics,” Jillson said.

Jillson said Munisteri and the GOP must substantially address issues such as jobs, education and health care, which are vitally important to Hispanics. “Until that happens, they (Hispanics) are not going to be interested in Republican messaging,” Jillson said.

Again, as I said before, Latino voters have a stronger belief in the role of government and by a sizable majority support the Affordable Care Act and believe that the federal government should ensure that all people have access to health insurance. They tend to be big supporters of public education, too. What’s the GOP got for that? Toning down the anti-immigrant stuff is a necessary first step for them, but it’s far from sufficient.

This is all assuming that they care about competing for Latino votes, of course. The Anglo-centric model is still working pretty well for them here in Texas, even as we heard its likely death knell nationally. As long as Latino voting rates lag behind those of other states, which is another way of saying “as long as there’s no concerted, fully-funded, long-term effort to engage and turn out Latino voters in Texas”, the current model could be good to go for several more cycles. Despite the Munisteris of the world, I suspect the Texas GOP won’t really take this seriously until they have no other choice. See this Ryan Lizza story for more.

When will we have truly electronic voting?

When will there be an app to cast a vote in a US election?

So at a time when we can see video shot by a robot on Mars, when there are cars that can drive themselves, and when we can deposit checks on our smartphones without going to a bank, why do most people still have to go to a polling place to vote?

That’s because, security experts say, letting people vote through their phones or computers could have disastrous consequences.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Barbara Simons, a former I.B.M. researcher and co-author of the book “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?”

Ms. Simons then ran through a list of calamitous events that could occur if we voted by Internet. Viruses could be used to take over voters’ phones; rogue countries like Iran could commandeer computers and change results without our knowledge; government insiders could write software that decides who wins; denial-of-service attacks could take down the Internet on Election Day.

“It’s a national security issue,” Ms. Simons said. “We really don’t want our enemies to be able to determine our government for us — or even our friends for that matter.”


Ronald L. Rivest, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that for now, the best technology out there is the one we’ve been using.

“Winston Churchill had a famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried before,” Mr. Rivest said. “You can apply the same statement to paper ballots, which are the worst form of voting, but better than all the others that have been tried before.”

Mr. Rivest, who is the R in the name of the RSA encryption system, which is used by government institutions and banks, said that if things went wrong on Election Day, chaos could ensue, because doubts about the results would rattle the foundations of our democracy.

“One of the main goals of the election is to produce credible evidence to the loser that he’s really lost,” he said. “When you have complicated technology, you really do have to worry about election fraud.”

So what’s the solution? Ms. Simons and Mr. Rivest both seemed certain that the best alternative was to stick with a technology that’s a couple of thousand years old. “Paper,” they both said, as if reading from the same script. “Paper ballots.”

Voting by mail, which some cite as an option, lets people avoid the lines, but it is not so easy on the vote counters. In states where this is allowed, envelopes have to be opened and ballots sorted into precincts. Then the signature needs to be matched with that on the voter registration card. None of this is terribly efficient.

So in 10, 20 or 100 years, when our cars have been replaced with self-flying spaceships, robots take our children to school, and our smartphones are chips in our heads, will we still be using a pen and paper to choose our president? I sure hope not.

I presume the people who object to early voting are sputtering incoherently about now. There’s a fundamental tradeoff in the computing world between convenience and security. That which is more convenient is inherently less secure, and vice versa. I would not be so arrogant as to contradict Simons or Rivest on the concerns about conducting an election over the Internet or via smartphone. But I have a real hard time believing that forty years from now when my daughters are my age that they’ll be voting by the same means I do today. What do you think?